2019 Whakaari / White Island eruption

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2019 Whakaari / White Island eruption
White Island 9 December 2019 eruption.jpg
Whakaari / White Island, nine minutes after the eruption
VolcanoWhakaari / White Island
Date9 December 2019 (2019-12-09)[1]
Start time14:11 NZDT (01:11 UTC)
TypePhreatic eruption
LocationBay of Plenty, North Island, New Zealand
37°31′12″S 177°10′57″E / 37.52000°S 177.18250°E / -37.52000; 177.18250Coordinates: 37°31′12″S 177°10′57″E / 37.52000°S 177.18250°E / -37.52000; 177.18250
ImpactFatalities: 22 (including 2 who are missing, declared dead)[2]
Injuries: 25

On 9 December 2019 White Island, an active stratovolcano island in New Zealand's northeastern Bay of Plenty region explosively erupted.[3] The island was a popular tourist destination, known for its volcanic activity, and 47 people were on the island at the time. Twenty-two people died, either in the explosion or from injuries sustained, including two whose bodies were never found and were later declared dead. A further 25 people suffered injuries, with the majority needing intensive care for severe burns.[4] The ongoing seismic and volcanic activity in the area as well as heavy rainfall, low visibility and toxic gases hampered recovery efforts over the week following the incident.[5][6][7]

Experts identified the event as a phreatic eruption: a release of steam and volcanic gases that caused an explosion, launching rock and ash into the air.[8]

Following the eruption, investigations resulted in WorkSafe New Zealand charging multiple tour operators, government and scientific agencies under the Health and Safety at Work Act for failing to ensure the health and safety of workers and others. The latest hearing was held in June 2021.[9]


Whakaari / White Island in 2013

Whakaari / White Island[a] is an active andesite stratovolcano, situated 48 km (30 mi) off the north-northeast coast of the North Island of New Zealand in the Bay of Plenty. The volcano has erupted many times in recent history, including several times in the 1980s.[10] A major eruption formed a new crater in 2000, and small eruptions occurred in 2012,[11] 2013,[12] and 2016.[13]

The volcano had been showing signs of unrest for several weeks before the 2019 eruption. In October 2019, volcanic tremors and sulphur dioxide gas were at their highest levels since 2016, indicating that an eruption was more likely to occur,[13] and on 18 November, the volcano was rated at Volcanic Alert Level 2, indicating "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest", due to increased activity.[14]

On 24 November, two weeks prior to the eruption, a moment magnitude (Mw ) 5.9 earthquake lasting approximately one minute with an epicentre located 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) northeast of White Island occurred, and was felt by people throughout New Zealand as far south as Christchurch.[15] Seismic activity can be a contributing factor to hydrothermic eruptions, due to a reduction of pressure within the geothermal system.[16][17]

The island is monitored by GNS Science with three web cameras, one seismograph, and a microphone to detect volcanic explosions. The organisation also makes regular visits to test water, gas and soil, and to survey surface deformation.[18]

Tourists regularly visited the island, primarily through White Island Tours. The organisation posted a statement on their web page before the eruption, which stated:[19]

Whakaari/White Island is currently on Alert Level 2. This level indicates moderate to heightened volcanic unrest, there is the potential for eruption hazards to occur. White Island Tours operates through the varying alert levels but passengers should be aware that there is always a risk of eruptive activity regardless of the alert level. White Island Tours follows a comprehensive safety plan which determines our activities on the island at the various levels.

— White Island Tours


The crater rim, captured by webcam one minute before eruption. Hikers can be seen walking in the centre of the image.
External video
video icon New Zealand volcano: Fatal Eruption on White Island

The volcano erupted on 9 December 2019 at 14:11 NZDT (01:11 UTC).[3] The ash plume rose 3.7 kilometres (12,000 ft) into the air.[20]

It was initially believed that there were about 100 tourists on or near to the island when the eruption took place; later, this figure was revised to 47 people who were on the island at the time.[21] Of these people, 38 were passengers on a shore excursion from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas,[22] which was on a 12-day voyage around New Zealand and had berthed at the Port of Tauranga that morning.[23]

Some visitors were waiting for vessels to take them off the island at the time of the eruption. Tour operators and these vessels rescued 23 people from the island before it was officially declared unsafe.[24] A passenger on one of the boats stated that his vessel attempted to first outrun the ash cloud before many on the vessel noticed a crowd of people in need of help on the jetty. Those who were brought onto the boat were aided by the original passengers who used water bottles, jackets and other clothing, inhalers, and eye drops.[25]

Another passenger told reporters that the boat he was on, which was about 200 metres offshore at the time of the eruption, launched an emergency inflatable and retrieved 23 people before returning to the mainland. Paramedics from the New Zealand Coastguard boarded the boat before it reached the docks to tend the injured.[26]

Noticing the eruption from the mainland shore, three commercial helicopter pilots conducted rescue missions to the island in their helicopters, bringing back twelve survivors. They also saw several bodies in the area, but concentrated on bringing back the survivors.[27] The pilots reportedly attempted to return to the island to collect the bodies they had seen but were stopped by police; however, they were consulted later in order to collect the bodies once the area became more stable.[28]


Victims by citizenship[29][30][31][2]
Citizenship Deaths Injuries
Australia 14 10
United States 5 4
New Zealand 2 3
Germany 1 3
United Kingdom 2
China 2
Malaysia 1
Total 22 25

The 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption consisted of 24 Australians, nine Americans, five Kiwis, four Germans, two Chinese, two Britons and one Malaysian.[32] A passenger on a rescue boat stated that many of the injured had severe burns as many of them had worn just T-shirts and shorts for the day.[26]

At 18:35 on 9 December, media were told there was one confirmed fatality, with more likely to be dead as several were missing,[13] while many were injured, seven critically.[20] Authorities said it was still too dangerous for the emergency services to get onto the island to rescue people as it is covered in ash and volcanic material.[3][33] Later the same day, officials declared that forty-seven people were on the island at the moment of the eruption: five were killed, 34 injured and rescued, while eight were missing and presumed dead.[34]

Three other people died in hospital the next days, bringing the confirmed death toll to eight.[35][36] Six more bodies were found during an operation on the island, bringing the death toll to 14. On 14 December, it was announced that the death toll had risen to 15 as another injured person died in hospital.[37] A day later, an Australian citizen who was repatriated died in hospital, bringing the death toll to 16, plus two victims whose bodies had not been recovered.[38] Another victim died from injuries in hospital, pushing the death toll to 19 including two missing people that were presumed dead. A further victim died at a hospital in Australia on 12 January 2020 bringing the total to 20.[39] Authorities were still working to recover two more bodies,[40] although as of 15 January efforts were scaled down.[41]


Over the days following the initial eruption, the death toll steadily rose as bodies were recovered from the island and as several of the severely burnt victims succumbed to their injuries.[42][35][36][43][44][45][46][47][48] On 15 December it was announced that the death toll had risen to 16.[38] They included 13 Australian tourists, three Americans and two New Zealand men who worked as guides for White Island Tours.[49] Another victim, an American woman, succumbed to her injuries on 22 December, raising the confirmed death toll to 17 and the number of the American fatalities to four.[50][51] In January 2020, an Australian man and an American man died of their injuries and the two missing people were officially declared as dead, bringing the death toll to 21.[52][2][53][39] A German man died on 2 July 2020, bringing the death toll to 22.[54]

Due to the severe injuries sustained by those on the island, identification of the deceased was carried out by a variety of individuals including a pathologist, a forensic dentist, and a fingerprint officer. This work was also aided by officers creating a profile on the victims, which included descriptions of appearance, clothing, photos, fingerprints, medical and dental records, and DNA samples. The information was then matched to evidence gathered from the deceased individual in the autopsy.[55]


All but three of the survivors suffered severe or critical injuries and the vast majority were badly burned. They were initially taken to Whakatāne Hospital, where they were triaged and stabilised before being transferred to other hospitals. Whakatāne Hospital, Tauranga Hospital, and Waikato Hospital in Hamilton all activated their mass casualty plans.[56] On 10 December, the Ministry of Health announced that twenty-five people had been transferred to the country's four burns units in Auckland (Middlemore), Hamilton, Lower Hutt and Christchurch, all of which were at capacity.[57] On 11 December, it was reported that New Zealand had ordered 1.2 million sq cm of skin[b] from the United States and Australia to treat patients following the eruption, some of whom had burns on up to 95% of their bodies.[58][59] Three survivors suffered slight injuries.

Thirteen injured Australians were airlifted to Australia from the night of 11 December to receive treatment in hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne. Three Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) planes, a C-130J-30 Super Hercules and two C-17 Globemasters, flew to Christchurch with specialist aircrew and medical equipment on board. Several Australian state governments also supplied aircraft to assist in the airlift. A total of twelve Australians were expected to be airlifted to their homeland.[60][61]

Missing after eruption[edit]

Initially, rescuers focused their efforts on people who were still alive and left corpses on the island. Consequently, many people were listed as missing until their bodies were recovered and formally identified. On 15 December authorities said the bodies of two victims had not been found and may have been swept into the sea.[62] Police believe their bodies were initially near a stream, and were swept down the stream during a "significant weather event" on the night of 9 December.[63] On 23 January, the coroner declared the missing two to be dead.[53]


Directly after the eruption, the volcanic alert level for the island was raised to 4, but was decreased by 16:30 on the same day to level 3.[18] No further eruptive activity occurred, and on 12 December the volcanic alert level was lowered to 2,[64] signifying "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest."[65] Volcanic tremor increased in the aftermath of the eruption, with small scale gas jetting and steam bursts observed on 13 December, however, the volcanic tremor level dropped that evening.[66]

Ovation of the Seas anchored off Picton on 13 December 2019, four days after the eruption.

Ovation of the Seas postponed its departure from Tauranga until the morning of 11 December as police collected DNA samples from the cabins of the missing passengers.[67][68] Māori townspeople and members of the Ovation of the Seas passengers and crew, held a moment of silence honouring the ship's passengers and other victims. Later a representative of the Māori began a karakia tau te mauri, a traditional blessing to settle the spirit before the ship left.[69] The ship returned to Sydney on 16 December on an altered itinerary via Wellington and Picton. All passengers received the equivalent of one day's fare in on-board credit as compensation.[70]

All those injured and killed in the eruption, regardless of nationality, would be covered by the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), who administer New Zealand's no-fault accident compensation scheme.[71] The ACC Act generally prevents claims for damages for negligent acts in New Zealand, but it may be possible for the cruise ship passengers to sue in American courts under United States maritime law.[72]

Investigation and prosecution[edit]

In December 2019, the New Zealand Police launched an investigation into the disaster in conjunction with WorkSafe New Zealand.[73]

On 30 November 2020, it was reported that WorkSafe New Zealand had filed charges against thirteen parties over tours to the island, including its owners, the Buttle family (who own the island through Whakaari Management Ltd), GNS Science, the National Emergency Management Agency, and tour operators Volcanic Air and the Ngāti Awa–owned White Island Tours. Ten parties have been charged under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015; nine under Section 36 for failing to ensure the health and safety of workers and others, with one facing a charge as a person controlling a business. Each of these charges carries a maximum fine of NZ$1.5 million. Three individuals were also charged under Section 44 of the act which requires directors or individuals who have influence over a company to ensure that the company meets health and safety obligations. Each charge carries a maximum fine of NZ$300,000.[74][75][76]

On 6 December 2020, Radio New Zealand reported that more than 89,000 people had signed a petition to stop the prosecution of helicopter pilots from Kahu Helicopters, Volcanic Air and Aerius who had saved lives during the eruption.[77] In addition, the Association of Scientists has warned that the prosecution of Crown research institutions like GNS Science could have the effect of muting the scientific community and preventing the sharing of vital information during a crisis.[78]

At a court hearing on 5 March 2021 the names of all the charged were officially revealed. Ten organisations and three individuals were charged under the Health and Safety at Work Act. The ten organisations were seven tourism companies (White Island Tours Limited; Volcanic Air Safaris Limited; Aerius Limited; Kahu NZ Limited; Inflite Charters Limited; I D Tours New Zealand Limited; and Tauranga Tourism Services Limited), GNS Science, the National Emergency Management Agency and Whakaari Management Ltd. The three individuals were Andrew, James and Peter Buttle, directors of Whakaari Management. A number of the charges were for alleged offences between April 2016 and December 2019. None of the charges relate to events following the eruption, when some of the charged parties rescued people from the island.[9] On 26 August 2021, the thirteen defendants pleaded not guilty to charges of health and safety breaches.[79]

Civil lawsuits[edit]

In April 2020 legal action was commenced in Australia on behalf of relatives and Ovation passengers against the cruise-ship operator Royal Caribbean International.[80]

Several injured tourists filed lawsuits against the cruise liner Royal Caribbean and the New Zealand–based tour company ID Tours in the United States and Australia. American couple Matthew and Lauren Urey filed a lawsuit against Royal Caribbean and ID Tours for negligence at the Miami District Court, claiming that the defendants had ample warning that the volcano was on the brink of eruption but had failed to warn passengers who had signed up for the crater excursion.[74]

Media coverage[edit]

The eruption and the experiences of those on the island have been depicted in various media formats, with the majority being filmed interviews and documentaries about tourists' personal experiences. The eruption was also heavily documented by day trippers and other individuals on boats surrounding the island,[81] along with at least one member of the tour groups who took a photo of the start of the eruption with her phone.[82] The scientific response to the eruption and the recovery mission was highlighted in a documentary.[83]

Another documentary titled The Eruption; Stories of Survival was released in December 2020 and documents the eruption through survivors' accounts and interviews with family members of those who died in the eruption.[84] Survivor accounts were also highlighted in an episode of 60 Minutes Australia, in which some survivors made accusations of inaction towards rescue efforts which potentially caused needless deaths.[85]

At least one survivor is using the social media platform TikTok, to document her experiences on the island, and her immediate and continued recovery, as well as pay tribute to her father and sister who died in the eruption.[86][87]


Ray Cas, a professor emeritus from Monash University, and past president of the International Association for Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior,[88] published comments about the disaster through the Australian Science Media Centre, claiming that the incident was "a disaster waiting to happen". He felt that the island was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visited.[89][24]

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that "the scale of this tragedy is devastating".[3] On 10 December, Ardern met emergency services personnel who responded to the incident.[90] The local member of Parliament Anne Tolley stated that the town of Whakatāne was shattered by the disaster and their thoughts were with the victims and their families but did not rule out that the tours would end due to the disaster occurring. Tolley claimed the tours were "iconic" and a "centrepiece of the town's tourism".[28]

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that "This is a very, very hard day for many families whose loved ones have been caught up in this terrible, terrible tragedy" and announced that an Australian Federal Police forensic team was sent to New Zealand to assist.[91] The Australian Parliament House also lowered its flags at half-mast.[92]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The island, like many geographic features in New Zealand, has a dual Māori/English name. "Whakaari" is the Māori name; "White Island" is the English name.
  2. ^ For comparison, the average adult human body has 20,000 sq cm of skin.[58]


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External links[edit]