Helicopter rescuers from the White Island eruption honoured with New Zealand Bravery Star

Publish Date
Wednesday, 26 October 2022, 9:21AM
Photo / Auckland Rescue Helicopter

Photo / Auckland Rescue Helicopter

Today seven helicopter rescuers from the White Island volcano eruption are being bestowed with one of New Zealand's highest bravery awards – the New Zealand Bravery Star.

Named in the 2022 Special Honours List, the seven men have been recognised for their selfless heroism during the chaos of the volcanic tragedy. 

The star is the country's second-highest bravery award next to the New Zealand Cross. It is awarded to a person who displays "an act of outstanding bravery in a situation of danger".

Whakaari erupted at 2.11pm on December 9, 2019, shooting out a massive column of steam and throwing a wave of hot rock, ash, and acid gas across the crater floor.

There were 47 people on the Bay of Plenty island at the time, but it was initially deemed too dangerous for air ambulance and paramedic helicopters to land.

Mark Law, a commercial helicopter pilot from Whakatāne, was the first rescuer to arrive on the crater at 3.12pm.

Alone, wading through shin-deep volcanic ash with each breath burning his airways, Law had no idea whether the volcano crater he'd just landed on would erupt again.

He put on a gas mask and managed to find 20 people in the crater.

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Later with the help of fellow pilots - Tom Storey, Jason Hill, Sam Jones, Callum Mill, Tim Barrow and Graeme Hopcroft - the crew managed to fly 12 injured casualties (lifting off with a maximum of five patients at a time) to Whakatāne Hospital in 40 minutes.

They then carefully grouped the dead closer together, with the intention of retrieving the bodies when the helicopters returned.

Law said he barely thought about the immense danger he was in.

"A couple of times the volcano made a pretty loud rumble and we sort of looked at each other."

He did not regret flying to the disaster zone despite other pilots being instructed not to.

Twenty-two people died from the Whakaari disaster, either in the eruption or from injuries sustained. Another 25 were injured, most needing intensive care for severe burns.

Of the 12 helicoptered out, 10 died.

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