Whakaari/White Island, New Zealand, 9 December 2019

Volcanic eruption

Quick Statistics

21 Fatalities
25 Injured

Whakaari/White Island is the tip of a large volcano 48 kilometres (km) off the New Zealand coast in the Bay of Plenty, 230 km south-east of Auckland. The island, which measures about 2 km long by 1.6 km wide, is New Zealand’s most active volcano and has been visited by more than 10,000 tourists each year.

On Monday 9 December 2019 at 2:11 pm local time the volcano erupted, releasing steam, volcanic gases, rock and ash into the air. There were 47 people on the island at the time, including 38 passengers from the Ovation of the Seas cruise liner, four tour guides, one helicopter pilot and four helicopter passengers. Nearly all of them - 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Chinese, two Britons and one Malaysian - were killed almost instantly or were severely injured.

New Zealand authorities were quick to respond after rescue services received a call for help at about 2:40 pm. Two helicopters were soon airborne and a third joined the rescue effort at 5:30 pm. Surviving victims were airlifted to nearby hospitals, many with burns to up to 90% of their bodies. Thirty-four victims were taken initially to the small Whakatāne Hospital; five were declared dead on arrival and several others were put into induced comas and on ventilators before being transferred to larger facilities. Seven of the most critically injured were flown to hospitals in Tauranga and Auckland. Three with minor injuries were treated and released.

By the following day, 25 victims had been transferred to the country's four burns units in Auckland, Hamilton, Lower Hutt and Christchurch, all of which were at capacity.

To support the New Zealand response, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) requested Emergency Management Australia (EMA) to activate OSMASSCASPLAN. This plan describes the arrangements for the repatriation to Australia of casualties from overseas following a mass casualty incident.  Under this plan EMA coordinated the repatriation of 13 injured Australians commencing on the night of 11 December, for treatment at hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne. This operation was completed within 48 hours due to time-critical clinical consequences for patients.   

EMA worked closely with the Department of Health (Health) and the National Health Emergency Management Standing Committee, DFAT, Australian Federal Police and the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to identify capabilities to support the repatriation.  Aeromedical transportation, retrieval personnel and ground transportation was provided from Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and the ADF.

DFAT provided essential consular assistance to the Australians in New Zealand and their families in Australia, and facilitated connections between the Australian and New Zealand health services to ensure the safe transfer of victims needing critical care.

In the week following the eruption, ongoing seismic and volcanic activity, heavy rainfall, low visibility and toxic gases hampered efforts to recover bodies remaining on the island. On 13 December, military personnel landed and recovered six bodies but were unable to locate two more.

Ultimately, there were 21 fatalities. Nineteen people died in New Zealand including two who remain missing, and two people died in Australia.

A further 25 people suffered injuries, many with severe burns. Of the 21 fatalities, 15 Australian citizens and three permanent Australian residents died, including one of the victims who remained missing.

Whakaari/White Island has been active for at least 150,000 years. Before this eruption, Whakaari/White Island had experienced several eruptions in the 1980s, a major eruption that formed a new crater in 2000, and small eruptions in 2012, 2013 and 2016.

The volcano had been showing signs of activity for several weeks before the 2019 eruption. In October, sulphur dioxide gas and tremors were at their highest levels since 2016, indicating an eruption was more likely to occur. On 18 November, GeoNet, which provides geological hazard information for New Zealand, upgraded Whakaari/White Island’s alert level from level 1 (minor volcanic unrest) to level 2 (moderate to heightened volcanic unrest) indicating a potential for eruption hazards, the highest alert level before an eruption takes place.

On 24 November, two weeks before the eruption, a magnitude 5.9 earthquake lasting approximately one minute with an epicentre 10 km north-east of Whakaari/White Island occurred, and was felt by people as far south as Christchurch.


This incident was included in the Major Incidents Report 2019-20 (AIDR 2020). See the report for further information on the incident. The report acknowledges the following sources: Emergency Management Australia; Department of Health, Fire and Emergency New Zealand; ABC News, GeoNet.