Heroism, devastation after deadly New Zealand volcano eruption

Around 100 people were near New Zealand’s White Island volcano when it erupted suddenly on Monday, leaving authorities scrambling to treat the injured. (File/AFP)
Updated 10 December 2019

Heroism, devastation after deadly New Zealand volcano eruption

  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said five people had died and eight more were presumed dead after Monday’s eruption
  • Amid questions over why tourists were allowed to visit the volcano, police announced a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the deaths and injuries

WHAKATANE, New Zealand: Tales of heroism, devastation and horrifying injuries emerged Tuesday after New Zealand’s smoldering White Island volcano exploded, killing an estimated 13 people.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said five people had died and eight more were presumed dead after Monday’s eruption, while dozens of injured had been airlifted to hospitals across the country.

Among the 47 people caught on the island during the sudden eruption were tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China, Germany and Malaysia, as well as local tour guides.

Amid questions over why tourists were allowed to visit the volcano, police announced a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the deaths and injuries.

Ardern praised the crews of four rescue helicopters for landing on the island soon after the eruption.

“Those pilots made an incredibly brave decision under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in an attempt to get people out,” she told reporters.

Intensive care paramedic Russell Clark was among those dispatched by helicopter to the caldera, which sits semi-submerged 50 kilometers (30 miles) out to sea.

There he found an “overwhelming” and “shocking” scene of devastation.

“We didn’t find any survivors,” he told TVNZ, remembering a dust-covered helicopter grounded with its rotor blades damaged.

“It was like.. I’ve seen the ‘Chernobyl’ mini-series and it was just everything was just blanketed ash.

“I can only imagine what it was like for the people there at the time — they had nowhere to go and an absolutely terrible experience for them.”

New Zealander Geoff Hopkins’ tour boat was leaving the island when a huge plume burst from the volcano — at what scientists said was supersonic speed — followed by a “menacing” and fast-moving cloud of grey ash.

Despite the danger, Hopkins said the boat moved closer to the shore after seeing survivors who had jumped from the island into the sea to escape.

“I don’t think there was anyone that came off who wasn’t badly burnt,” he told the New Zealand Herald, describing how victims screamed and went into shock as fellow tourist tried to tend to their blistered skin.

Top New Zealand health official Pete Watson said 27 of the 34 survivors were being treated for burns to more than 71 percent of their bodies.

“It’s important not to underestimate the gravity of the injuries suffered,” he said.

After an initial rush, concerns about further eruptions, poisonous gases and choking ash stalled efforts to recover bodies.

The risks were underscored Tuesday when a large-but-harmless 5.0 magnitude earthquake struck to the east of the disaster zone.

Ardern said New Zealanders were mourning alongside those from overseas tourists caught up in the disaster.

“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief and in your sorrow,” the 39-year-old prime minister said, just months after managing another national crisis during Christchurch’s deadly twin mosque attacks.

Many of the victims are believed to be Australian and Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned his compatriots to brace for the worst.

He said there were fears that three of the five dead were Australian, and another eight citizens were unaccounted for.

“This is a very, very hard day for a lot of Australian families whose loved ones have been caught up in this terrible, terrible tragedy,” he told reporters in Sydney.

The Malaysian government said one if its citizens had died and two British women were confirmed to be among those injured.

The eruption at White Island — also known as Whakaari — occurred on Monday afternoon, thrusting a thick plume of white ash 3.6 kilometers (12,000 feet) into the sky.

When the blast occurred, it was being visited by a group of more than 30 people from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, the Ovation of the Seas, which left Sydney on a 12-day voyage last week.

The island in the picturesque Bay of Plenty attracts more than 17,000 visitors every year.

But the threat level at the volcano had been raised in recent days, leading to questions about whether it was safe for tour groups to visit.

New Zealand police indicated that would be one focus of their investigation.

“I can confirm now that we will commence a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the death and injuries on White Island,” deputy commissioner John Tims told reporters.


Trump calls for investigation into allegations of voter fraud in Minnesota

Updated 52 min 54 sec ago

Trump calls for investigation into allegations of voter fraud in Minnesota

  • Right-wing website claims activists linked to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s campaign are involved in illegal ‘ballet harvesting’

US: US President Donald Trump on Monday called on the Justice Department to investigate allegations of illegal voting activity by activists linked to Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s campaign.

The claims were made in a story published on Sunday by right-wing website Project Veritas, the founder and CEO of which is Conservative activist James O’Keefe. It alleges that workers with connections to Omar were involved in illegal “ballot harvesting” in Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, which she has represented since 2019, and that some voters were paid to vote for Democratic candidates.

Ballot harvesting refers to a practice in which a third party collects completed absentee ballots from voters’ homes and drops them off at polling stations. This is not illegal in many states, but there are often limits on how many ballots one person can harvest.

In a message posted on Twitter, Trump said: “This is totally illegal. Hope that the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota has this, and other of her many misdeeds, under serious review??? If not, why not???”

The Project Veritas story, which was published on the same day as the New York Times published details of Trump’s tax returns, includes details of a series of videos it said was posted on Snapchat in early July by Liban Mohammed, the brother of Minneapolis City Council member Jamal Osman. In them, he talks about harvesting ballots to help his brother in an Aug. 11 city council election.

He said, in a mix of English and Somali: “Money is everything. Money is the king in this world. If you got no money, you should not be here, period. You know what i am saying? Money is everything and a campaign is managed by money … numbers do not lie. Numbers do not lie.

“You can see my car is full. All these here are absentee ballots … all of these are for Jamal Osman. Look, look. Just today we got 300 (ballots) for Jamal Osman.”

O’Keefe claimed that the extent of the ballot harvesting was astounding.

“Ballot harvesting is real and it has become a big business,” he said. “Our investigation into this ballot-harvesting ring demonstrates clearly how these unscrupulous operators exploit the elderly and immigrant communities — and have turned the sacred ballot box into a commodities trading desk.

“We are showing Americans what is really going on in one of our great cities — but, it's not me saying — we have the operators on tape saying it all themselves.”

Last month, Omar won the 5th Congressional District’s Democratic Primary and will face Republican Lacy Johnson in the Nov. 3, 2020 General Election. The district — which was previously held by Keith Ellison, who is now Minnesota’s Attorney General — is overwhelmingly Democratic and Omar is expected to easily win.

Omar’s office did not respond to a request for a comment about the Project Veritas story. Newsweek reported that a spokesperson for the congresswoman stated that Mohammed does not work for her.

In response to Trump’s tweet, Omar wrote: “Years of tax evasion … Trying to rush through the confirmation of a right-wing extremist Supreme Court nominee … Lies and inaction that have lead to the preventable deaths of 200,000 people. This is what we’re up against. Stay focused.”

Minnesota is one of several “battleground states” in the upcoming presidential election, in which the result is expected to be very close. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the state with 46.4 percent of the vote to Trump’s 44.9 percent — a difference of only 44,593 votes.