At 14:11 local time on Monday 9th December 2019, the small island of Whakaari (White Island) experienced a devastating volcanic eruption. Situated 48 km from New Zealand’s North Island, this little 2 km-wide land mass is home to the Country’s largest active volcano where visitors are restricted to licensed tours and a small number of scientific researchers.             

The current human toll is 16 killed, 30 injured and 2 remain missing.

All patients were initially taken to the small Whakatane Hospital on the mainland. Two doctors and six nurses were suddenly confronted with one of New Zealand’s most significant natural disasters. The hospital’s clinical leader, Dr Heike Hundamer, said in media reports that what they faced was “beyond comprehension”.

Within that same afternoon, New Zealand’s emergency response organisation, St. John’s, had tasked our Accredited Service Provider, New Zealand Air Ambulance (NZAAS), with the vital role of flying critically ill patients to one of four tertiary level burns units and an international jet mission directly to Australia.

Three fully equipped ICU aircraft, of the nine-strong fleet, were initially dispatched to undertake day and night missions over the first 24 hours, work that would continue throughout the week. The effort was carefully coordinated to control the significant impact on receiving intensive care units dealing with bed availability, theatre time and staffing requirements.

Collectively, over thirty people in NZAAS’s team have been directly involved, so far.

NZAAS’s medical director, Dr Shay McGuiness, oversaw the planning of transportation and clinical care considerations. Dr McGuiness commented: “Complex patient transports of the sort required for these patients demand a high level of teamwork and cooperation both within the NZAAS and with many District Hospital Board staff that are involved in their care. Although the events themselves are tragic, it is extremely rewarding to see how well our staff and those in the DHB hospitals coped under extreme pressure.”

Arriving at Whakatane Hospital on the first night of the disaster, NZAAS Director of Flight Nursing, Angela Coward commented on the excellent care the patients received from the medical staff at Whakatane hospital who triaged, stabilised and cared for the patients from Whakaari Island eruption.

Annabel Toogood, CEO of NZAAS commented “I am extremely proud of the difference our team make daily, from our air ambulance coordinators, flight nurses, doctors and our aeromedical pilots. The collaborative response and how we can bring intensive care to patients is imperative especially when faced with tragic mass casualty events like this.”

“NZAAS’s exemplary response makes us proud to count on them as an Accredited Service Provider with our global alliance,” stated International Assistance Group’s General Manager, Louise Heywood. She added: “Where ever people travel, we can provide them with the confidence that the best possible resources can be called upon irrespective of eventuality.”

Less than a week after the event, NZAAS are already planning the next phase – returning patients to their families across the globe and how best to support them. Experienced coordinators in long-haul commercial airline transportation are working alongside colleagues ready to deploy the international air ambulance fleet.

Established over 30 years ago, NZAAS’s fully equipped medical air-fleet today provides an essential service not only within New Zealand but throughout the South Pacific with a combination of short-haul turboprop and international jet aircraft.

NZAAS are no strangers to being involved in urgent aeromedical situations that have hit international media headlines. In the last four years, they have undertaken missions for the victims of the Christchurch earthquake and the mass shooting in Christchurch.