White Island tragedy: Authorities admit rescue helicopters could have flown in sooner

Almost a year since the deadly Whakaari White Island eruption, authorities now say search and rescue teams could have reached the island much sooner.

In an interview with 60 Minutes, St John medical director, Dr Tony Smith, said that upon reflection, rescue crews could have flown to the island much earlier than when they did – about two-and-a-half hours after the eruption.

“But had we gone to the island sooner, I’m absolutely medically confident … unfortunately, we were not going to save anymore additional people.

“The information we were receiving at that time was that it was unsafe to land on the island.”

A total of 21 people were killed when Whakaari erupted at 2.11pm on December 9 last year. Dozens of others suffered were injured – many of whom suffered severe burns.

There were 47 people on the island at the time.

A fleet of 11 search and rescue helicopters in Whakatāne on that day could have reached White Island in about 20 minutes.

But authorities chose not to send them; as the island was quickly deemed too dangerous to land on.

Despite the imminent danger, two local pilots – of Kahu NZ – decided to rush out to the scene in their helicopter and landed safely on Whakaari about an hour after the eruption.

The pilots, named as Jason Hill and Tom Storey, managed to transport five people – including the Browitt family – to hospital.

A number of other pilots from several private helicopter companies in the area were also able to land safely on the island and help the injured – many of whom have expressed that if it were not for them, they would not have survived the events of that day.

Hill and Storey radioed information back to authorities letting them know that it was safe to land.


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A post shared byStephanie Coral Browitt (@stephaniecoral96) on

But Smith says that information did not reach him that day.

“We recognise that those pilots made a decision on the day which was different to the decision that we made,” he told 60 Minutes.

“We recognise that and we understand it.”

Survivor loses sister and father

One of the people rescued by the Hill and Storey was Stephanie Browitt, who would survive the harrowing ordeal but suffer severe burns to 70 per cent of her body.

Even more painful, however, was the loss of the two family members she was with on that day – her sister Krystal, 21, and dad Paul.

Stephanie would only find out about her sister’s death weeks later, when she finally woke up from a coma.

Four weeks after that, her dad Paul would succumb to his injuries also.

Stephanie said on the programme that she wished she could have thanked her father – who managed to get the attention of pilots Hill and Storey when their helicopter landed.

“It broke me a little,” she said.

“I wish I could thank my dad and tell him that he was a hero. I wish I could just let him know how amazing his actions were on that day.”

The young woman now documents her journey as a burns survivor on her Instagram account – the bio of which reads: “White Island survivor.”

“Sometimes I question why I’m here. Why was it me out of everyone?”

Stephanie has undergone more than 20 operations to date and has had eight fingers amputated.

Many of the photos she shares are graphic images of the scars she now carries.

Stephanie said she continued to be angry at the decision by officials not to send up to 11 rescue helicopters to the island on that fateful day.

“It’s very upsetting just because I know it definitely would have made a difference for a lot of the people (who) were there that were waiting,” she said.

“Lives could have been saved that day.”

Lawyer Peter Gordon, on Stephanie’s behalf, is now suing cruise company Royal Caribbean, which sold her family tickets to the White Island tour.

She said they were never told by the cruise ship or tour company about a heightened risk of volcanic unrest – until they were already on it.

additional reporting: News.com.au

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