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One island, 22 dead: the real story of Whakaari, when volcanic tourism turns tragic


On December 9, 2019, an excursion to the volcanic island in the north of New Zealand caused the death of 22 people. A tragedy that relates the documentary In the trap of the volcano, currently on Netflix.

The “dramatic volcano”.

It is the literal translation of "Te Puia o Whakaari", the full name given by the Maoris to White Island or Whakaari.

A name that resonates singularly since the tragedy that took place there on December 9, 2019. Almost three years to the day after this volcanic eruption that left 22 victims and 25 injured, Netflix is ​​broadcasting the documentary

Whakaari: In the volcano trap,

directed by Rory Kennedy.

For 1h38, the film returns to the tragedy that affected the 47 tourists and their guides on the New Zealand island located north of North Island.

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    Between beaches and glaciers

That Monday, several dozen tourists, mostly Australians, landed on the 2 by 2.4 kilometer volcanic island and split into several groups.

Everyone begins to photograph their lunar landscapes, their white smoke and, above all, the volcano's crater lake.

Everyone notices the strong smell of sulphur, even through the masks entrusted by the guides.

Then, at 2:11 p.m. local time, the eruption begins.

A cloud of ash forms and quickly reaches 3.7 kilometers in height.

If a group has already boarded the Phoenix, one of the boats returning to North Island, 47 tourists remain stranded on Whakaari.

For shelter, some nest behind a rocky ensemble.

Others dive into the water.

The volcano's crater lake.

Adobe Stock

After a few minutes, the eruption ceases.

Immediately, the organizers of the excursion mobilized to rescue those who remained on White Island.

The Phoenix, which had left Whakaari a few minutes before the eruption, turned around.

Three North Island commercial helicopter pilots, noticing the ash cloud, also went to the scene and managed to bring back twelve survivors.

Rescuers take the direction of White Island.

The spared tourists are also helping out, sending the injured their jackets, inhalers and eye drops and covering the passengers in shock.

A total of 23 of the 47 tourists on the island are rescued thanks to this collective effort.

22 lose their lives.

Until now, Whakaari had never erupted in the presence of visitors.

A mudslide in 1914 had nevertheless caused the death of ten workers working in a sulfur mine, which was then forced to close.

Read alsoNew Zealand is accelerating the reopening of its borders

Alerts for several weeks

Many signs seemed to announce the eruption of December 9, 2019. Netflix / Photo press

Several elements relating to the maintenance of this expedition raise questions today.

Alerts about increased volcanic activity at Whakaari increased in the days leading up to the eruption.

Thus, in October 2019, the GNS Science research institute noted that the quantity of sulfur dioxide ejected by the volcano was at its highest level since 2016. Same observation for tremors, these volcanic earthquakes caused by rising magma .

By November 18, 2019, as activity at Whakaari intensified, the Volcanic Alert Level had risen to 2 (on a scale of 1 to 5), indicating "moderate to high volcanic unrest".

On November 24, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake with an epicenter just 10 kilometers from Whakaari was recorded.

GeoNet then indicated that “

Whakaari / White Island could enter a period when eruptive activity is more likely than normal



White Island Tours, the main organizer of excursions to Whakaari, indicated on its website, a few days before the eruption, that the volcanic alert level had been raised and that there was a risk of an eruption taking place.

The operator also recalled that

"passengers should be aware that there is always a risk of eruptive activity regardless of the alert level".

And to add: “White Island Tours follows a comprehensive security plan which determines [its] activities on the island”.

A message that did not prevent the murderous excursion from taking place.

Read alsoNew Zealand, the paradise of the antipodes

New Zealand's most active volcano

White Island has been active for 150,000 years.

Adobe Stock

Whakaari is also the most active volcano in New Zealand.

The emerged part of the island represents only 30% of the volcano, which is therefore largely underwater.

Located in the middle of the Bay of Abondance, White Island has experienced several eruptions in recent years, including two in 2016, several in 2013, one in 2012... And even a discontinuous one between December 1975 and September 2000. However, many are those who continue to want to trample it.

The volcanic island has been in the Buttle family since 1936 – when stockbroker George Raymond Buttle acquired it.

His grandsons, Andrew, Peter and James Buttle, later turned it into a money-making attraction by opening it up to tourists.

About 10,000 curious people visit it every year.

And for good reason: in addition to being one of the few volcanoes easily accessible and not requiring climbing, fascinating legends surround White Island.

According to Maori mythology, the island hosted the spiritual leader Ngatoro-i-Rangi as he sought to climb Mount Tongariro.

At the time, freezing temperatures prevailed over Whakaari.

Ngatoro-i-Rangi, dying, would then have implored his ancestors (or his sisters, the versions differ): he needed warmth.

Hearing his prayers, they sent him two fire demons.

Whakaari thus became a volcano.

Read alsoNew Zealand: between heaven and earth in the land of the hobbits

The dangers of volcanic tourism

Every year, many tourists seek the thrill of visiting volcanoes.

Adobe Stock

Active for more than 150,000 years, Whakaari therefore makes its honey from volcanic tourism.

This branch of adventure travel has already experienced many tragedies.

Witness the 2013 eruption of Mayon in the Philippines, which killed 5 people, the 2014 eruption of Mount Otake in Japan, which took the lives of 51 people, or the 2019 eruption of Stromboli in Italy, which killed one. tourist.

Dr. Amy Donovan published a report in the journal

Royal Geographical Society

in 2018 worrying about the risks of volcanic tourism.

Besides potential eruptions, the toxic gases released by the volcano's activity (such as carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide) are harmful if inhaled by travelers.

Read alsoDespite the warning from the authorities, the volcanic eruption in Iceland is already attracting the curious

Source: lefigaro

All news articles on 2022-12-22

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