Speeding back to Whakatane, the Phoenix was now a hospital ship. Nearly an hour after the eruption, passengers who had been able to walk aboard were now moaning and screaming as their burns swelled and blistered. Tongues were puffing. Throats were closing. “You’d lift someone’s shirt and the shirt was in perfect condition, but there would be terrible burns underneath it,” Geoff Hopkins, on a tour with his daughter, told Radio New Zealand. Initially, he, Depauw, and other passengers had poured bottled water on the burns. Now many of the injured were going into shock. Some couldn’t tolerate wind or sunlight. Others shivered uncontrollably. Hopkins told Good Morning Britain that he found himself comforting Lauren and Matt Urey, who were slipping in and out of consciousness. “I don’t think I’m going to make it,” Lauren would say. “You can!” Hopkins would insist. “You’re a fighter! There’s more for you. It’s not going to end today.”
Approaching the Phoenix from the air, Storey and Hill saw passengers on deck performing CPR. As the pair attempted to airlift the worst injured, Mark Law shot past. A few minutes later, with Hill still hovering, Law learned that a coast guard boat from Whakatane with two paramedics on board was approaching the Phoenix. He told Hill and Storey to leave the boat to the coast guard. He needed them on the island.
Passing over the crater, Law had spotted more than a dozen people in a loose grouping on the crater floor a couple hundred yards below the inner depression. Some were sitting. Some were “starfished.” At 3:12, an hour and a minute after the eruption, Law touched down on a landing platform. Hill and Storey followed. The acid in the air would be ruinous to their choppers. But “the most important thing was we went and cared for those folks who were alive, dying, and dead,” Law said.
Strapping on gas masks, Law, Hill, and Storey ran the few hundred yards up into the crater through shin-deep drifts of hot ash. Once they reached the group, the three men hurried from person to person, checking their injuries and reassuring them that help was coming. Their burns were gruesome. “They were black,” said Law. “Anything exposed was burned.” Law had tended badly wounded soldiers in combat. “Nothing more important in that situation than to hear someone arrive and take care of you when you are in such an agonizing, confused, painful, lost state,” he said. Some of the group were unresponsive, possibly dead. Most were alive, if dazed and incoherent. “People were groaning and asking for water,” Storey said.
All 20 people that the pilots found were below the rim of the inner crater, forming a loose line along the path. Many of their burns were so severe that later, when the pilots saw pictures of the dead and missing on the news, they didn’t recognise them. One adult was so disfigured it was impossible to tell if they were a man or a woman. But from police press releases, the pilots’ descriptions, and confirmation from New Zealand police, the 20 were:
Martin Hollander, 48, and his U.S.-born wife, Barbara, 49, from Sydney, and their boys, Berend, 16, and Matthew, 13;
Gavin and Lisa Dallow, 53 and 48, from Adelaide, and their daughter, Zoe Hosking, 15;
Kristine and Anthony Langford, 45 and 51, from Sydney, and their daughter Winona, 17;
Paul Browitt, from Melbourne, and his daughters Stephanie, 23, and Krystal, 21;
Julie Richards, 47, from Brisbane, and her daughter, Jessica, 20;
Richard Elzer, 32, and Karla Mathews, 32—boyfriend and girlfriend—and their friend Jason Griffiths, 33, all from the eastern Australian town of Coffs Harbour;
Hayden Marshall-Inman and Tipene Maangi, both guides.
At first, when Storey came across two young women, Krystal Browitt and either Jessica Richards or Zoe Hosking, lying unconscious next to each other, he thought they were dead, but feeling for a pulse, he found one on both. A few yards downhill, lying next to a stream, Tipene Maangi was showing no signs of life. Fifty yards away, one of the Hollander boys was breathing. Looking for Hayden, Law followed a set of footprints in the ash leading away from the main group, past Maangi, toward the sea. His friend was 40 yards on, lying by the same stream, unresponsive. Winona Langford was nearby. She also wasn’t moving.
As the three pilots worked, they were able to piece together some of what had happened. From where they were, the walkers would have seen the initial eruption. Behind a boulder, Storey and Law came across a small pile of phones and tablets; video from them would later confirm that several had stopped to film the steam cloud. What none of them could have seen, until it crested the lip and consumed them, was the horizontal blast of rock, ash, and acid mist. Many injuries were to their anterior sides, suggesting that they were facing it when it hit. Superintendent Andy McGregor, police district commander for the Bay of Plenty, said: “In the ash was hydrochloride, hydrofluoride, and sulfur dioxide. Mix those with water and you get hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, [which] attacks calcium, and sulfuric acid. So you’ve got superheated gases, you’ve got the blast, and you’ve got the acid atmosphere. Imagine what that does.” The pilots didn’t have to. Along with the burns, they found evidence of the eruption’s force. Law noted numerous shrapnel injuries and signs of internal damage. Storey came across one man with part of his head missing.
Amid the carnage were signs of courage and sacrifice. A guide’s medical kit sitting among the group was probably carried there by Hayden or Maangi after the blast. Many of the injured were wearing gas masks that looked to have been placed on them after they’d lost consciousness. In Maangi’s outstretched hand was an asthma inhaler, as though he was passing it to someone when he succumbed. The footprints described almost unbelievable heroism. Atop the ash, they had to have been made after the eruption and seemed to indicate that Hayden had backtracked and tried to lead his group away from the crater, toward the ocean. The position of his body, Maangi’s, and Winona’s suggested that, in the darkness of the ash cloud, they were following the stream downhill. None of them made it. But Winona’s elder brother, Jesse, had run all the way to the jetty.
As they processed what they were seeing, the pilots steeled themselves with the thought that they had arrived in time. Most of the injured were hanging on, if barely. The pilots understood that rescue crews were en route. “I think they were only about four or five miles away,” Storey said.
Then, sometime between 3:25 and 3:30, Funnell came back on the radio. The rescuers had been ordered to Whakatane. No help was coming. The pilots were on their own.