Pike River and now White Island, both lethal tragedies with a lesson to be learned: police cannot be trusted to make the best decisions for survivors after a disaster in a technical environment.

At Pike police made the call not to go underground immediately following the first explosion at Pike River – despite Mines Rescue being keen and willing to go underground immediately – in hindsight Mines Rescue were proved correct with a window of opportunity where the methane build-up cleared in the first explosion took five days to build up again before the second explosion.

Mines Rescue are our experts on mining disasters, they work in the industry and train for exactly these events. Their efforts, and those of mining locals, to get inside quickly were refused by police.

At White Island a local private helicopter company took it on themselves to fly to the crater to collect injured and bring them back to the mainland for treatment, leaving behind other injured and dead, but when they sought to return for a second trip they were stopped by authorities.

Had these brave pilots, who put their own lives at risk, asked for permission for that first trip over to White Island they would most likely have been stopped.

The obvious advantage locals in the area have over police and others from outside the area is twofold – first their knowledge of the environment and second their contacts within the area who quickly supplied Mark Law with reliable information enabling him to launch an immediate rescue.

Police chose robots at Pike River which failed and at White Island they are dithering around with drones. Police who do not listen to technical experts or experienced locals produce exactly the same result at both sites – people left behind.

This is the transcript from the AM show Wednesday 11 December of the conversation between Duncan Garner and helicopter pilot Mark Law.

Duncan:

Out of this week’s devastating tragedy this week also come some hero’s stories of those who put their lives on the line. They really did. Many selfless kiwis rushed to help dozens of people severely burned. Among them was our next guest, Kahu NZ helicopter pilot Mark Law who was one of the first on the scene. A true NZ hero and proper recognition in time will come, there’s no doubt about that. Mark, good morning to you.

Mark:

Yeah, gidday Duncan.

Duncan:

Nice to have you on the programme, has it all sunk in, what you guys really did? What you achieved?

Mark:

Ah, yeah. Yeah, nah I was pretty clear, I was pretty clear on the day, actually, what was going on… um… so yeah, no real change, just an opportunity to reflect a little bit and pass on information to others to help the ongoing recovery.

Duncan:

Tell me… take me back there… so take me back 40 hours and tell me what you did, what you saw as you came in. What did… how did it play out for you?

Mark:

Yeah, I was just driving back from Tauranga and noticed the big plume, ah, looked a bit sinister so contacted my pilot… one of the pilots at the base and he confirmed that so we checked the cameras and they were blacked out. We called PJ just to see what was going on. They… ah… there was no response from the boat so I called another friend out there on a fishing charter and he said “hey look, there’s been a… a real significant event”.

Um… my mate from Volcanic called and said he had a helicopter on the island with some folks so I made the decision to launch out two helicopters so myself, Jason and Tom left and ah… flew to the… towards the volcano as one of the boats from PJ was coming back so we went down and had a look and ah.. we could see a lot of very distressed people with a lot of CPR happening and so we continued to the volcano.

Duncan:

And what did you see there?

Mark:

Yeah, so ah… I flew inside the crater and very quickly noticed a lot of people sprinkled throughout the crater floor where we generally take the walking tours. People were in all different ah… ah… positions. A lot of them were starfish, a lot of them were lying down – no one was standing – there was people sitting… and very quickly it looked like ah… a very significant amount of distress and we couldn’t really tell from the injuries at that stage and so we landed and ah… ran to the different folks I recalled from the air and started to check them out.

And, ah… the other crew landed and they joined me and ah… we went about everyone to see what ah… you know… what status they were. And, ah… very tragically there was a number of people dead at that stage. A number of people were alive ah… not coherent and in various states of consciousness. Some people were able to briefly say a couple of things and just sit dazed.

The injuries were ah… very horrific, the obvious being the burns. The gas on the island was horrendous, it was very difficult to breath without gas masks. The gas masks, they were there. They all had gas masks and were unable to fit them, there [were] obviously a lot of shrapnel injuries as well from material flying and least, but not last, the impact of the force of the hydrothermal eruption ah… was… had obviously done huge amounts of damage internally to people, which we couldn’t see, but a couple of symptoms here and there. No one could stand so… um… so at that stage I heard that the rescue services weren’t actually coming to the island so I made the decision to bring the helicopters up to where the people were and we loaded five in Jason’s and sent him to the hospital and five in mine and I left for the hospital.

And my mate Tim arrived in his helicopter and we put two in there and left… sadly all three of us lost people on the way back and ah… but we did manage to get the rest to the hospital, to the airport to medical, and then ah… ah… we only know of sort of two others that were in a ah… conscious state and I think sadly they passed ah… with Tom and ah… and so by the time a rescue helicopter got out there… there was really no one left to rescue.

So, we ah… at that stage we were stood down. We wanted to go back out and continue on ah… but emergency services NZ had taken over and ah… so that was the job done at that time.

Duncan:

Amazing story – and well done! And congratulations – I am not even sure that’s the right word to say, but it’s the thing that’s come to my mind straight away. Congratulations to all that you’ve done – a true NZ hero.

You were stood down, so that’s the end of that operation. You wanted to go back. Are you critical of them for stopping you going back?

Mark:

(Long pause) Um… I think there’s two ways to ways to look at it, you know, the conscious decision is easily made – we could go out there, we could have gone out there again – we could go out there now.

In actual fact the last two days have probably been the best conditions to go there with a south-easterly so all the wind’s taking the ash away, potentially if any small eruption happened, you know, it’s just the immediate danger is not there – the gas would be pushed out to the north-west… it’d be a really easy job, you know.

For us, you know it’s 20 minutes to get out there, we could load those folks on and be back here in, you know, an hour and a half. That’s what I do know.

Duncan:

You could… you could have those bodies back by nine o’clock this morning? It’s 20 past seven now.

Mark:

Yep, yep. I know where they all are and um… the conditions are perfect for recovery in my mind. But at the end of the day you know, we are just a private company. NZ emergency services are made up on people that are making decisions on behalf of others and um… they are the ones with the authority so, you know, let them be.

Duncan:

By letting them be, we are putting up drones this morning so the NZ police and emergency are putting up drones to test the toxicology, or whatever the word is, of the atmosphere, and that sort of thing whereas you could get there and back in the next hour or so.

I am critical of this now after listening to you, and I consider you an expert because of what you do and what you’ve done and what you’ve achieved already.

I think the police should lift this cordon, or this barrier or whatever they call it. They need you up there. I don’t see why not.

Mark:

Yeah, yeah, no… we’d like to go you know we got a good friend out there in Hayden and ah. you know we were there, you know, within an hour I think of the eruption going off. I’m still here standing you know. I might have a little more gas inside me but you know, I think it’s… yeah… it comes down to a call and a conscious call and a bit of individual responsibility and obligation and probably lastly, just want to go and get those folks and the truth of it is we can. It’s a risk that we measure and have done for years going out there and today… yesterday and today are probably the perfect days.

Um… you know the drone going up, you know, White Island – the acidity of it – that just eats drones – we’ve seen so many drones – they go in there and they won’t work.

I don’t… they’ll have a method for that, um. we know we’ve mapped them out for police – where the bodies are. It will just be a matter of landing right in the middle there and ah… and loading them in.

We handled all the bodies that we bought out alive or deceased, I don’t see why there’s a major issue handling…

Duncan:

Just briefly, very quickly Mark, you’ve been astonishing this morning, you’ve shaken up the authorities in this country, quite frankly, in the last ten minutes.

Your mate Hayden, he sounds like a brilliant guy, a fantastic guy, was he alive when you were… when you landed, or had he died?

Mark:

I’m not 100% sure Hayden… ah sorry Duncan, but what I do know mate is that when we were looking and working through everyone and then started to go wider in our search for people, yeah, that’s when I picked up the track through the dust down a small stream from where most of the people were and down round the corner towards the sea, that’s where Hayden was. And ah. in typical fashion, between me and the crew here and knowing Hayden, you know, look, we all firmly believe he was there with the group and survived after trying to get himself down to the water’s edge there with a bit more safety and away from the gas and all the ashing that was going on, and sadly succumbed. I don’t know whether that happened when we arrived there or not mate. I don’t really… I just don’t know enough to know what we could have done earlier to get him off would have helped him but it truly looked like with the sign on the ground that he was there with his folks, that he was looking after them and then he decided to head out. Bearing in mind, that you know, those people were probably shrouded in dust for two, three, four, five minutes would have been black as in there and everyone was trying to sort of take care of each other in darkness.

Duncan:

A big nightmare. I do appreciate you fronting up this morning and being so honest. I consider this an open challenge to the NZ authorities and to the police this morning that they must respond immediately as well because it’s an open challenge, quite frankly.

I appreciate your time. A true kiwi hero and in time you will be recognised, I hope, fully.