London – Tales of heroism emerged from the New Zealand volcano horror on Tuesday as rescuers described scenes of devastation like those of Chernobyl.
Six people are now confirmed to have died in Monday’s eruption, after a victim who had made it off White Island succumbed to their injuries. However, a further eight people are unaccounted for.
Doctors warned that the majority of 30 survivors being treated at specialist units on the mainland had burns of more than 30 per cent and not all were expected to survive. Two British women, understood to be from the same family, are among the injured. Relatives flew out to New Zealand on Monday to be by their bedside.
But another two Britons who had been missing feared dead contacted family Monday to confirm they were safe.
Karl Rakos, 57, and his wife Deborah, 50, from Darlington, got in touch with Karl’s mother to tell her they were on a cruise ship headed for Australia.
Police said 47 people were on the island at the time of the eruption. A tour party was at the crater itself when it blew.
Eyewitnesses told how screaming tourists ran into the sea as rocks and ash rained down, only for them to emerge from the water with horrific burns.
Paramedic Russell Clark, who flew to the island to rescue tourists, said the scene was like ‘something out of the Chernobyl TV mini-series’.
He said: ‘Everything was blanketed in ash. There was a helicopter on the island that had obviously been there at the time and its rotor blades were off. It was quite a shocking experience.’
Mr Clark was one of many heroes who headed towards the danger in a selfless attempt to rescue the wounded. Boat captain Paul Kingi, who had set sail from the island minutes before the eruption, returned ‘again and again’ until he could see no more survivors.
And helicopter pilot Tom Storey ignored safety protocols to fly into the toxic fumes to pick up the injured on Whakaari, as the mainly under-sea volcano is known in Maori.
Tragically, during his rescue mission, he discovered his friend, tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman, in the ash. But he had to make the agonising decision that he was beyond saving.
He added: ‘He was in a pretty bad way, so I just pulled him out from where he was and made him as comfortable as I could.
‘It felt like running through talcum powder. There was a very fine dust and it was very extremely hard to breathe. Without a gas mask, you were gasping for air.’
Asked why he flew through the ash cloud, he replied: ‘You just do what you do, the old adrenaline takes over. I’d rather break a few rules and save some lives than sit here wondering what we could’ve done.’
Boat owner Geoff Hopkins, 50, told how he pulled ‘boatload after boatload’ of holidaymakers on to his vessel.
He said he and his daughter, along with two tourists who were doctors, tended to 23 injured people on the two-hour journey back to the mainland.
‘Everyone was horrifically burnt,’ he said. ‘People were in shorts and T-shirts so there was a lot of exposed skin that was massively burnt. There were also huge burns under people’s clothes. So their clothes looked fine, but when you cut them off… I’ve never seen blisters like that.’ Mr Hopkins later learned that five of those on his boat had died.
Steam continued to rise from the volcano yesterday, making it impossible for the bodies on the island to be retrieved.
Of the 47 there at the time of the blast, 24 were from Australia, nine from the US, five from New Zealand, two from China and one from Malaysia, along with the two from the UK.
The injured have been admitted to eight hospitals across New Zealand. They include newlyweds Matthew and Lauren Urey, from Richmond, Virginia, who were on a cruise for their honeymoon.
Among the missing are local tour guide Tipene Maangi, who had been called in on a day off, and 16 Australians, including Karla Mathews and Richard Elzer, both 32 and from Coffs Harbour, New South Wales.