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Defence Force honoured after fatal eruption

The Whakaari White Island volcanic eruption on 9 December 2019, which claimed the lives of 22 people and seriously injured 25.

The leadership, skills and professionalism of New Zealand Defence Force personnel involved in the Whakaari White Island response have been acknowledged by the Chief of the New Zealand Defence Force through the announcement of a number of awards.

Air Marshal Kevin Short says in recognition of the courage and determination recognised today, through Her Majesty the Queen’s awarding of a Distinguished Service Decoration to Serviceman M for his role in leading the recovery teams to retrieve victims from the Whakaari White Island volcanic eruption, he was pleased to also recognise others involved in the response.

From specialist doctors to helicopter pilots, Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boat drivers to Commanding Officers, and everything in between, the NZDF had a wide-ranging response of skills to draw from when the need arose following the Whakaari White Island volcanic eruption on 9 December 2019, which claimed the lives of 22 people and seriously injured 25.

“The actions of those members of the New Zealand Defence Force involved with the victim recovery operation showed great courage and determination to retrieve those that perished on the island,” he said.

The New Zealand Defence Force deployed personnel from the Royal New Zealand Navy, Royal New Zealand Air Force and New Zealand Army to respond alongside other agencies to the emergency situation, and were successfully able to reunite the remains of six victims with their families.

Nine members of the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Squadron were deployed on the volcano four days after the eruption to recover the victims that had succumbed to the deadly effects of the initial eruption.

Air Marshal Short says they each displayed courage and determination as they faced extreme conditions whilst wearing cumbersome protective equipment that caused them to fatigue quickly.

“Their efforts played a critical role in the success of the operation.”

These members have been awarded seven Defence Meritorious Service Medals and two CDF Commendations.

Additionally, one member of the EOD Squadron who supported those who deployed on the volcano has been awarded an NZDF Commendation.

Air Marshal Short says he's pleased to announce the awards of the Defence Meritorious Service Medal, Chief of Defence Force Commendation and New Zealand Defence Force Commendation to those members of the New Zealand Defence Force who contributed to the success of the victim recovery operation.

The recipients are:

Recipient of the Defence Meritorious Service Medal:

FLTLT HAMISH REICHARDT

Recipients of a Chief of Defence Force Commendation:

SGT PHILLIP DELANEY

FLTLT LOIC IFRAH

SGT JENNIFER HART

LSCS JOSEPH CAMPBELL

LSCS REYNE HEPI

LHSO STEPHEN LOFTHOUSE

LTCDR TIMOTHY HALL

Recipients of a New Zealand Defence Force Commendation:

DR SOPHIE WALKER

SQNLDR CHRISTOPHER ROSS

LTCOL CHARMAINE TATE

HMNZS WELLINGTON

Citations of the recipients are below:

CITATION

Flight Lieutenant Hamish REICHARDT

Flight Lieutenant Reichardt was the lead pilot of the second Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopter detachment that responded to the White Island eruption which occurred on 9 December 2019, and which killed 22 people and seriously injured 25.

Flight Lieutenant Reichardt was involved in the initial recovery operation planning and provided subject matter expertise on the best use of the helicopter to support the ground recovery teams on the island. Flight Lieutenant Reichardt showed exceptional leadership as his aircraft was prepared for the task and his crew were consulted on how the recovery operation should proceed. He liaised with a wide range of agencies and sought advice on the expected environmental conditions from civilian helicopter pilots who had been involved in the immediate survivor rescue.

This was no ordinary mission. The recovery operation itself was not straightforward, with unfavourable wind and a low cloud base at around six hundred feet. A regular volcanic explosion every few minutes would envelop most of the crater with poisonous gas and fumes, and therefore required the aircraft to operate in and out of the area in cycles. In addition, two of the victims were unable to be located which resulted in a low level search in a challenging environment, demanding exceptional piloting skill to operate the NH90 helicopter towards the edge of its limits.

Flight Lieutenant Reichardt quickly recognised that the ground recovery teams were going to take significantly longer than planned due to the extreme conditions. He demonstrated excellent judgement and agile decision making by modifying the recovery plan to use an alternative technique to recover some of the more isolated bodies. In doing so he ensured that the ground recovery teams were not exposed to the fatiguing and hazardous environment for any longer than necessary.

Flight Lieutenant Reichardt was conscious of the high profile nature of the task, the requirement to treat the victims with dignity and respect, and how critical this task was to the friends and families of those who had perished. He showed tenacity by successfully completing the task despite many significant challenges, and he and his crew played a critical role in a mission which bought great prestige to the New Zealand Defence Force on the international stage. His professionalism and determination throughout the entire operation was exemplary and he is a worthy recipient of the Defence Meritorious Service Medal.

CITATION

Sergeant Phillip DELANEY

Sergeant Delaney was the lead helicopter loadmaster of the Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopter detachment that responded to the White Island eruption which occurred on 9 December 2019, and killed 22 people and seriously injured 25.

Sergeant Delaney was involved with the planning and preparation for the body recovery operation. He presented multiple options to complete the task through use of the NH90 hoist and underslung hook capabilities. Sergeant Delaney liaised with multiple stakeholders including the ground recovery teams, New Zealand Police, Fire and Emergency New Zealand, and a specialist volcanologist. Sergeant Delaney arranged for the ground recovery teams to be trained in the use of the helicopter equipment expected to be used in the recovery mission.

On the day of the recovery operation, Sergeant Delaney worked as a member of the aircraft crew to safely operate the aircraft within the crater in toxic and highly variable conditions. Throughout the flight he provided information to the pilots about obstacle clearance, proximity to ash, steam and gas clouds, escape path monitoring, and status of the ground party, all whilst concurrently searching for two missing bodies. Sergeant Delaney displayed a high level of skill as he expertly guided the aircraft and ground recovery teams to suitable extraction sites.

The crew identified that the ground recovery teams were going to take significantly longer than planned due to the extreme conditions. Sergeant Delaney quickly developed and executed a technical solution that addressed the issues that threatened the successful completion of the body recovery operation. Sergeant Delaney’s quick response to a problem and ability to adapt under pressure undoubtedly contributed to the success of the mission.

Sergeant Delaney was conscious of the high profile nature of the task, the requirement to treat the bodies with dignity and respect, and how critical this task was to the friends and families of those who had perished. He showed tenacity by successfully completing the task despite many significant challenges, and he and his crew played a critical role in a mission which bought great prestige to the New Zealand Defence Force on the international stage. His professionalism and determination throughout the entire operation was exemplary and he is a worthy recipient of a Chief of Defence Force Commendation.

CITATION

Flight Lieutenant Loic IFRAH

Flight Lieutenant Ifrah was the co-pilot of the second Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopter detachment that responded to the White Island eruption that occurred on 9 December 2019, and killed 22 people and seriously injured 25.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force deployed two helicopters to the recovery operation, with the primary aircraft conducting body recovery from White Island and the second aircraft on immediate standby. Flight Lieutenant Ifrah was one of the two pilots tasked with conducting the air recovery of the victims from White Island. He volunteered to undertake the recovery operation and in doing so, helped develop a plan to operate within the crater in cycles to ensure the safety of the aircraft and crew.

This was a challenging environment and required a coordinated effort by all the crew. Communication was critical to ensure they all knew what hazards were present, where the ground recovery team were and what was expected of them as the recovery operation evolved. They started with an aerial search of where the victims lay thereby guiding the ground recovery team who faced their own exhaustion and fatigue issues. Flight Lieutenant Ifrah worked closely with the lead pilot to enable efficient approaches to the recovery sites and assisted with the power demands of the aircraft all the while monitoring the frequent gas explosions. He continuously passed critical information allowing the lead pilot to concentrate on the task of recovering the victims.

Flight Lieutenant Ifrah displayed excellent teamwork and demonstrated the skills of a pilot to the highest standards. This was an operation of national significance and despite many significant challenges, it took great courage to complete this mission which bought great prestige to the New Zealand Defence Force and New Zealand on the international stage. For his courage and skill, Flight Lieutenant Ifrah is a worthy recipient of a Chief of Defence Force Commendation.

CITATION

Sergeant Jennifer HART

Sergeant Hart was the second helicopter loadmaster of the Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopter detachment that responded to the White Island eruption that occurred on 9 December 2019, and killed 22 people and seriously injured 25.

The Royal New Zealand Air Force deployed two helicopters to the recovery operation, with the primary aircraft conducting body recovery from White Island and the second aircraft on immediate standby. Sergeant Hart played a vital role in assisting with guiding the aircraft over the crater both when searching for the victims and when conducting the body recovery via air. She concentrated on the hazard caused by variable ash disturbance, analysing the aircraft’s escape path and the status of the ground recovery team throughout the operation.

There is no doubt that the situation was challenging and Sergeant Hart showed great adaptability when it was apparent that fatigue had set in within the ground recovery team and a change in plan was required to ensure the operation could succeed. She was instrumental in informing the pilot of the hazards from her side of the aircraft and in assisting the lead helicopter loadmaster in securing the victims during the extraction back to HMNZS Wellington.

Sergeant Hart knew the importance of the body recovery operation and providing closure for the families of the victims. She volunteered for the operation and knew the risks involved, she demonstrated immense courage in her duties and bought great prestige to the New Zealand Defence Force and New Zealand on the international stage. For her courage and ability, Sergeant Hart is a worthy recipient of a Chief of Defence Force Commendation.

CITATION

Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Joseph CAMPBELL

On 9 December 2019, HMNZS WELLINGTON sailed after three hours notice to support the National Emergency Management Agency response to the eruption of White Island. Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Campbell was posted to HMNZS WELLINGTON as a Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) coxswain. Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Campbell was one of three coxswains who participated in the recovery effort throughout the entire period the ship was on station in support.

HMNZS Wellington’s contribution lasted eight days during which the ship’s boat capabilities were essential and in high demand. The RHIBs were utilised not only during the recovery phase of the operation, but also for ship to shore movement to Whakatane, and in the ongoing search around White Island for the two missing victims. Alongside his fellow coxswains, Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Campbell displayed excellent professional judgement, grit, and strength of character to ensure the ship’s boat capability remained available throughout the operation.

During the time on station at White Island, Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Campbell and his colleagues conducted 59 boat evolutions. This represents a remarkable increase in normal boat activities, which would usually be no more than 15 evolutions in a week. Examples of the extraordinary pressure these sailors faced during the operation are the crossing of the hazardous sand bar in the entrance to Whakatane harbour, which was navigated multiple times during the operation, and the RHIB operations that were undertaken in close proximity to an active volcano at night and in unfavourable weather conditions.

Being the coxswain of a seaboat brings the extra responsibility of special command. Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Campbell was very aware of the dangers he and his passengers faced whilst wearing cumbersome protective equipment. Few can claim to have performed to such a high standard over a sustained period and Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Campbell is a worthy recipient of a Chief of Defence Force Commendation.

CITATION

Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Reyne HEPI

On 9 December 2019, HMNZS WELLINGTON sailed after three hours notice to support the National Emergency Management Agency response to the eruption of White Island. Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Hepi was posted to HMNZS WELLINGTON as a Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) coxswain. Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Hepi was one of three coxswains who participated in the recovery effort throughout the entire period the ship was on station in support.

HMNZS Wellington’s contribution lasted eight days during which the ship’s boat capabilities were essential and in high demand. The RHIBs were utilised not only during the recovery phase of the operation, but also for ship to shore movement to Whakatane and in the ongoing search around White Island for the two missing victims. Alongside his fellow coxswains, Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Hepi displayed excellent professional judgement, grit, and strength of character to ensure the ship’s boat capability remained available throughout the operation.

During the time on station at White Island, Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Hepi and his colleagues conducted 59 boat evolutions. This represents a remarkable increase in normal boat activities, which would usually be no more than 15 evolutions in a week. Examples of the extraordinary pressure these sailors faced during the operation are the crossing of the hazardous sand bar in the entrance to Whakatane harbour, which was navigated multiple times during the operation, and the RHIB operations that were undertaken in close proximity to an active volcano at night and in unfavourable weather conditions.

Being the coxswain of a seaboat brings the extra responsibility of special command. Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Hepi was very aware of the dangers he and his passengers faced whilst wearing cumbersome protective equipment. Few can claim to have performed to such a high standard over a sustained period and Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Hepi is a worthy recipient of a Chief of Defence Force Commendation.

CITATION

Leading Hydrographic Systems Operator Stephen LOFTHOUSE

On 9 December 2019, HMNZS WELLINGTON sailed after three hours notice to support the National Emergency Management Agency response to the eruption of White Island. Leading Hydrographic Systems Operator Lofthouse was posted to HMNZS WELLINGTON as a Rigid-Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) coxswain. Leading Hydrographic Systems Operator Lofthouse was one of three coxswains who participated in the recovery effort throughout the entire period the ship was on station in support.

HMNZS Wellington’s contribution lasted eight days during which the ship’s boat capabilities were essential and in high demand. The RHIBs were utilised not only during the recovery phase of the operation, but also for ship to shore movement to Whakatane and in the ongoing search around White Island for the two missing victims. Alongside his fellow coxswains, Leading Hydrographic Systems Operator Lofthouse, then an Able Hydrographic Systems Operator, displayed excellent professional judgement, grit, and strength of character to ensure the ship’s boat capability remained available throughout the operation.

During the time on station at White Island, Leading Seaman Combat Specialist Lofthouse and his colleagues conducted 59 boat evolutions. This represents a remarkable increase in normal boat activities, which would usually be no more than 15 evolutions in a week. Examples of the extraordinary pressure these sailors faced during the operation are the crossing of the hazardous sand bar in the entrance to Whakatane harbour, which was navigated multiple times during the operation, and the RHIB operations that were undertaken in close proximity to an active volcano at night and in unfavourable weather conditions.

Being the coxswain of a seaboat brings the extra responsibility of special command, and more so when Leading Hydrographic Systems Operator Lofthouse was of a lower rank of Able Rate. In undertaking the duties and responsibilities of a RHIB coxswain during this operation Leading Hydrographic Systems Operator Lofthouse displayed maturity beyond his rank and experience. Leading Hydrographic Systems Operator Lofthouse was very aware of the dangers he and his passengers faced whilst wearing cumbersome protective equipment. Few can claim to have performed to such a high standard over a sustained period and Leading Hydrographic Systems Operator Lofthouse is a worthy recipient of a Chief of Defence Force Commendation.

CITATION

Lieutenant Commander Timothy HALL, RNZN

Lieutenant Commander Hall was the Commanding Officer of HMNZS Wellington which was tasked to respond to the White Island eruption that occurred on 9 December 2019, and which killed 22 people and seriously injured 25.

HMNZS Wellington had just completed a six week fisheries patrol and had recently returned to the Devonport Naval Base when it was activated to respond to the White Island eruption, recalling the crew and sailing for Whakatane the same day. The ship was pivotal to the victim recovery operation, where in the following days it was required to navigate close to the volcano and in doing so faced the possibility of further eruptions.

The character of a ship’s company is to a large degree a reflection of the Commanding Officer, and the manner in which Lieutenant Commander Hall’s team responded to the challenges of the recovery operation was his responsibility alone. He ensured the ship maintained a high level of readiness, personally working long days without significant rest but ever mindful of his ship’s company’s fatigue and welfare. HMNZS Wellington became the critical link between Whakatane and White Island, where the ground recovery team were launched from and the victims brought to.

Lieutenant Commander Hall contributed to the overall planning of the recovery operation and developed his own contingency plans for rescuing boats, aircraft and the ground recovery team should another eruption occur. He ensured that at all times the ship’s crew showed respect to the victims and empathy for the families. The ship remained on station for a further three days after the recovery operation to support the police in searching for the two missing victims, and to provide a platform from which the families of the victims conducted a memorial service on near White Island on 16 December.

Lieutenant Commander Hall demonstrated professionalism and resilience in responding to the White Island tragedy. His exemplary leadership and drive to complete the task, despite many significant challenges, bought great prestige to the New Zealand Defence Force and New Zealand on the international stage. Lieutenant Commander Hall is a worthy recipient of the Chief of Defence Force Commendation.

CITATION

Doctor Sophie WALKER

On 9 December 2019 Whakaari/White Island erupted while tourists were present on the island. As part of the disaster response, at the request of NZ Police, Fire and Emergency New Zealand stood up the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) to provide expert scientific support about the hazards present and appropriate hazard mitigation for the recovery mission.

Doctor Walker was requested to join the STAC team to provide expert guidance on appropriate protective equipment from the volcanic gases and liquids that those undertaking the recovery may encounter.

Doctor Walker worked well beyond standard working hours for the ensuing week seeking information regarding the risks to recovery mission personnel and how to best mitigate those risks and briefing NZ Police, Fire and Emergency and other agencies on STAC findings. Due to the known hazards of gases and acids that were present on the island, Doctor Walker recommended that the EOD could not conduct the operation planned whilst incorporating the civilian protective equipment and instead ensured familiar, and appropriate NZDF protective equipment was provided for the recovery operation. Doctor Walker was widely acknowledged for her skills in clearly articulating the complex technical issues for non-specialists in a concise manner.

In addition to her STAC role, Doctor Walker provided direct support to EOD personnel. She informed the responding EOD officers of the risks present, and identified with them what of their equipment and protective gear was suitable for employment on the recovery operation and how to decontaminate themselves and their equipment upon extraction from the island.

The tasks and support undertaken by Doctor Walker were not part of her day to day job description. However, she ensured that those undertaking the recovery mission had the appropriate equipment and were well informed of the risks present on Whakaari / White Island. Through her support to STAC and EOD, Doctor Walker made a significant contribution to the safety of the recovery team, brought distinction to the NZDF in its contribution to STAC, and did all this in a high stress and combative environment. For this, Doctor Walker should be commended.

CITATION

Squadron Leader Christopher ROSS

Op White Island/Whakaari Eruption was the NZDF response in support of the National Emergency Authority following an eruptive event on 09 December 2019. After the initial aeromedical evacuation response provided by No.3 Squadron on the evening of the eruption, the NZDF continued to provide support and planning for a likely body recovery operation led by the New Zealand Police.

Squadron Leader Chris Ross had newly posted in as the Medium Utility Helicopter Flight Commander at the Squadron a matter of days before the eruption. Squadron Leader Ross assumed a leading role in the operational planning, risk management, logistic support and personnel planning in support of the likely use of military helicopters in the recovery operation.

On activation of 3 SQN to provide support for the recovery operation, Squadron Leader Ross quickly established himself as a key figure in the operational planning and management of the tasked mission. He provided expert advice to the Deployable Joint Inter-Agency Task Force element, the New Zealand Police planners and commanders, and liaised effectively with the local helicopter operators to develop the recovery operation concept of operations.

Squadron Leader Ross’ knowledge of the NH90, his ability to extract key information from his own personnel and other individuals outside his command, complemented by his ability to efficiently develop a plan with requirements that were unique and unprecedented, resulted in a plan that led to mission success.

Operation Squadron Leader Ross was called upon to provide additional advice, support and leadership to his crews conducting the mission. His performance surpassed what would normally be expected of a Detachment Commander, and led his personnel with determination, competence and empathy. His leadership and commitment to a successful outcome in a high pressure situation are in keeping with the best traditions of the Royal New Zealand Air Force and the wider NZDF. It is for these reasons that Squadron Leader Ross should be commended.

CITATION

Lieutenant Colonel Charmaine TATE

On 9 December 2019 Whakaari/White Island volcanic eruption occurred. 47 people were on or around the island during the eruption necessitating a significant response by New Zealand emergency services and government agencies, led by New Zealand Police. As part of this response, Lieutenant Colonel Tate was directly requested to assist in Disaster Victim Identification of the victims.

Having deployed directly to Whakatane to meet with her Police colleagues, Lieutenant Colonel Tate was brought into the planning and risk considerations around victim recovery, based on both her medical and search and rescue expertise. Lieutenant Colonel Tate became intimately involved in the considerations and planning for body recovery operations.

On the decision to commence the body recovery operation, Lieutenant Colonel Tate became the immediate in-place medical officer to support the initial landing. As a result, Lieutenant Colonel Tate participated in the medical support role for both the NZDF conducted body recovery operation, and the Police-mounted body search operation that took place two days later. Her role within the operation directly contributed to the safety and wellbeing of those conducting the body-recovery tasks, as well as to the overall success of the mission.

The contribution of Lieutenant Colonel Tate to the planning for the operation was praised on site by both the NZ Police leadership, and the NZDF contingent commander. Lieutenant Colonel Tate demonstrated a willingness to adapt and fulfil a variety of roles in order to ensure that the New Zealand emergency agencies, the New Zealand Police, and the NZDF were able to successfully conduct dangerous tasks in support of the recovery. Lieutenant Colonel Charmaine Tate has demonstrated professionalism and devotion to duty, both as a physician and an officer in the NZDF, for which she should be commended.

CITATION

HMNZS WELLINGTON

HMNZS WELLINGTON, the Otago Class Patrol Vessel, was one of the first responders to the White Island eruption on 09 December 2029. At 1600 the Ship with a crew of 69 people, alongside in Devonport, was activated to respond; by 1900 that evening she had sailed. In the coming days HMNZS WELLINGTON would prove pivotal to the success of the operation as a whole, and the key to recovering six of the eight people who tragically died on the island following the eruption. In order to execute her mission, she at times needed to navigate in close proximity to the island facing a very real chance of further eruptions and often deploying personnel close to the shore; for which there was no shortage of volunteers.

Short notice night time responses were characteristics of the operation, and WELLINGTON’s Ship’s Company responded unwaveringly in the face of a gruelling tempo. Her time on station was embodied by a willingness to respond, steadfast resolve in seeing the job through, and a calm professionalism in the face of danger and uncertainty.

Throughout the recovery operation WELLINGTON worked long hours maintaining constant readiness with the Ship and her boats often within close proximity to the Island, ready to provide an evacuation option in the event of another eruption. At all times, the Ship’s Company showed the greatest care and respect for the deceased and empathy for their families.

While still in the vicinity of White Island, HMNZS WELLINGTON was suddenly re-tasked 900nm to the North East of New Zealand to provide aid to a fishing vessel in distress. Under extreme weather conditions the Ship had to plan and execute a challenging search and rescue mission in the face of significant uncertainty and potential risk, a task that she achieved with the upmost professionalism.

Over the course of 11 days, HMNZS WELLINGTON steamed nearly three and a half thousand miles and conducted 18 hours of flying operations. She responded to one of the most significant national emergencies in recent years before flowing seamlessly into a complex search and rescue mission. Conducting her operations in an ambiguous and unstable environment, the crew of HMNZS WELLINGTON demonstrated significant ability to prevail in adversity ensuring the mission was achieved. For that, the Ship should be commended.

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4 Comments
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What about the local helicopter pilots that were on the spot first ? ?

Posted on 07-06-2021 15:41 | By local yokel

They did an amazing job of getting some of the civilians off the Island and saved quite a few of the tourists lives. They put their own lives in danger to save as many tourists as they could . We don’t hear much about that apart from the fact there would have been many more lives loss if it wasn’t for those brave helicopter pilots and others who saved many people before the forces even got to the Island. They were the ones that rescued the injured and deserve medals too but not much was said about that apart from them having to go to the court in Whakatane once the trial begins. The Forces did do a good job when they got there but let’s not forget the ones on the spot and were.saving the tourists

How insulting to the real resuers.

Posted on 07-06-2021 12:20 | By Cynical Me

Meanwhile, eveyone else who did the real effort are in court. How much more insulting to people can this govt. be.

Too little too late

Posted on 07-06-2021 10:31 | By Carlos spicywiener

Civilians did the real work,defense did recovery.

title

Posted on 07-06-2021 09:52 | By dumbkof2

if anyone deserved a medal it should be the civilian helio pilots who went out minutes after the eruption. saved more lives than the airforce ones