'Superhuman': Truth behind rescue photo
A White Island tour guide has been praised for his "superhuman" effort in rescuing victims from the disaster scene in an emotional Facebook tribute by his former boss.
Rick Pollock made a lengthy post on Tuesday in which he paid tribute to White Island Tours manager Paul Kingi and detailed how the company was started 35 years ago and achieved a string of successes until "their fabulous run of luck ran out."
He said he was "personally devastated" as he had known deceased tour guide, Hayden Marshall-Inman, since he was three years old and played with his sons. He said Mr Marshall-Inman was a passionate guide who travelled to the US and eventually returned to New Zealand where he began running boats "under the supervision of his mentor and friend, Paul Kingi."
Mr Pollock, who runs a charter fishing company, said Paul Kingi had a strong work ethic which shined through during the most terrible of events.
"Yesterday this all came to fruition yet again but under the most dire of circumstances. Having left the island only minutes before the eruption he was the first back on, rescuing and assisting numerous injured back onto the waiting boats.
"He went back again and again, ignoring the toxic environment and personal risk, until he was satisfied there were no more obvious survivors remaining. This superhuman effort doesn't surprise me in the least as I've seen this fine man in action on numerous occasions, always controlling a bad situation.
"Indeed, I was shipwrecked with him once for five days on an uninhabited Island! Anyway I'd like to recognise Paul for what he is on this occasion, nothing less than a hero!"
Pictures from the scene appear to show Mr Kingi on the dock before a final boat makes it off the island. Paramedics who flew over in a rescue helicopter described the scene as like the nuclear disaster "Chernobyl" while one said the volcanic ash was as fine as talcum powder and left people "gasping for air."
Mr Pollock also told Radio New Zealand how Mr Kingi was "absolutely vital" to the rescue effort and luckily he wasn't serving as boat skipper at the time.
"Had he been the skipper he would have had that responsibility too and he couldn't have spread himself too thin. But Paul, being a free agent, was able to get back on the island and pretty much perform all the heroics," he said, adding that he got onto an inflatable dinghy and made his way back onto the erupting island.
"He just charged back into that crater and was just pulling people off left right and centre - I think he pulled in excess of 20 people out."
As he was about to leave, he saw a final figure through the ash.
"He said that the atmosphere was acidic, acrid and just horrible and he was really starting to get concerned for himself when he saw him," Mr Pollock said. "That was the last person he rescued. And that man, he said, had a full inch of ash all over him."
Mr Pollock said the ordeal would be very hard on his friend but he wanted to highlight his effort because he "flies under the radar so often".
"He's just such an incredible guy in every instance and he really showed it yesterday. He really put his life on the line."
On Tuesday evening New Zealand police confirmed six people died in the eruption, with another eight missing feared dead, bringing the potential death toll to 14. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 24 Australians were believed to have been on the island at the time.
New Zealand Police said they do not expect to find any survivors and have been unable to carry out drone reconnaissance yet because of high winds.
As the recovery operation continues, questions are being raised about why tourists were allowed onto the active volcano given the alert level had recently been raised.
Mother Barbara Barham said she was "just livid" after receiving a call from her daughter Lauren Urey telling her she and newlywed husband Matthew Urey had been rescued with burns.
"There's been warnings about it ... my son-in-law never would have booked the excursion if he knew there was any chance of them being injured," she told News Corp Australia.
Another passenger, Venessa Lugo, 24, from Newcastle, said information about the White Island day tour was provided before the cruise, in printed sheets on board, and through a Royal Caribbean app that cruisers were encouraged to download.
"In those sheets we weren't advised of any warnings of anything going off," she said. "It did ask about pre-existing medical conditions, and it was classified as strenuous activity because you would be in a gas mask, but it definitely didn't specify the possibility of (the volcano) going off."
Monash University vulcanologist Raymond Cas said he has visited White Island twice since 1986 and was convinced it was a "disaster waiting to happen".
"I visited White Island in 1986 and again in 2005 or 2006, and what makes it very dangerous is, first of all, it's very remote," he told the ABC.
"It's 50 kilometres offshore from New Zealand with no habitation, no emergency services available.
"When you actually get onto the island, you walk straight into this amphitheatre-like volcanic crater.
"The floor is littered with many gas-emitting vents and also several volcanic crater lakes which are emitting steam at near-boiling temperatures.
"You know straight away that you're right in the crater of a big, very active volcano which has what we call very active geothermal systems consisting of superheated water which at depth is also going to be under a lot of pressure and therefore prone to sporadic explosions."
A statement from White Island Tours said the company was "deeply saddened" following the significant eruption at Whakaari / White Island this afternoon.
Chairman Paul Quinn said: "Devastation is an understatement. This is a terrible tragedy and our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who has been impacted."