WW101 February 3, 2021 – Working Together is the Answer: Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Air New Zealand Teamed Up to Deliver the Best of Care During the White Island Eruption

Wednesday Wisdom Series February 3, 2021
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February 3, 2021

Following is the latest Wednesday Wisdom article from the Family Assistance Foundation, reminding you that a fully integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org. Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.

Working Together is the Answer:

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line and Air New Zealand Teamed Up to Deliver the Best of Care During the White Island Eruption

    On December 9, 2019, the volcanic island Whakaari/White Island in New Zealand’s northeastern Bay of Plenty region explosively erupted. Of the 47 people on the island, 38 were on a shore excursion from Royal Caribbean's cruise ship Ovation of the Seas. The ship was on a 12-day voyage around New Zealand. Of the 47, the nationalities included 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Chinese, two UK citizens, and one Malaysian. The tragedy resulted in a total of twenty-two deaths.

    Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Air New Zealand worked together, involving team members and responders throughout both continents delivering compassionate care throughout the holiday season, putting other families’ needs in front of their own. An upcoming webinar offered by the Foundation will feature presentations by leaders of both the Royal Caribbean and Air New Zealand Care and Special Assistance teams. They will discuss how working together in conjunction with the Foundation and international authorities; they served the survivors and families of the victims. Following is an overview of the tragedy and a summary of immediate events surrounding the eruption, highlighting how company employees, officials, and strangers from the entire world stepped in to help in whatever way they could.

The Rescue

One minute we were taking photos, the next tending the burns of fellow tourists.

-A tourist who moments earlier walked around the crater

    A tourist who witnessed the scene told reporters how he and other passengers on his boat became part of the rescue. As they pulled away from the island, most were taking photos and looking back at what at first appeared to be regular smoke coming from the crater. Suddenly, it became apparent that what they were witnessing was not at all normal.

    At first, what appeared to be small amounts of billowing white smoke turned into massive clouds of white ash, and immediately the island was covered in a thick black cloud of smoke. The boat’s skipper at first applied speed to try to get away from the volcano. But as the smoke cleared, those on board could see a crowd of people back on the jetty. Quickly the passengers realized that these were tourists from another boat from the same operator, White Island Tours.  They were victims of the volcano, now scared and desperate for escape.

    Turning back to rescue them, these tourists who 30 minutes earlier had been standing on the crater themselves now reached out for the victims pulling them to safety. Many of the survivors had severe burns; others were physically unhurt—some had sustained other types of injuries, and many struggled to breathe. The rescuer-passengers instinctively set up an assembly line, passing water bottles back and forth to refill them and pour water over the burns.

    The passengers gave their jackets, inhalers, and eye drops. Men took off their shirts to cover passengers in shock. Halfway to the mainland, a coastguard vessel met them, and paramedics came on board to care for the injured. The passengers encouraged the victims who appeared physically uninjured to remain calm as they raced toward land.

    Others in the area watching the two boats bringing survivors to land described the flurry of activity at the waterfront, including five ambulances and a growing crowd of residents. Rescue helicopters began to buzz overhead. Due to the danger still present on the island, police and emergency services were delayed in landing and walking on the island. A local man who had visited the island many times described some of the danger in addition to the hot ash. There was only one walkway leading to and away from the crater. And now, beneath that walkway, boiling water raged. Residents of the local area described the somber attitude hanging over the town.

Back on the Ship

The crew on the ship were really good. They were trying to stay upbeat and do all they could do for those who were suffering.

    Meanwhile, back on the ship, guests onboard sent messages over social media that the vessel would stay put until further notice; a group of passengers was missing. Some of the guests said to the press that the crew back on the ship was really good. They were trying to stay upbeat and do all they could for those who were suffering. One man reported that the captain was breaking down and crying a 'fair bit.'

    The ship postponed its departure from Tauranga until the morning of December 11. Police collected DNA samples from the cabins of the missing passengers. Along with the ship's crew members and other guests, local community members held a moment of silence, honoring the ship's passengers and other victims. A traditional blessing was offered later, to settle the spirit before the ship left.

Deaths and Injuries 

    Initially, the media reported one fatality, and then later that same day, they said that five were killed, 34 injured and rescued, while eight were missing and presumed dead. Over the next several weeks, the death toll rose to 20, and then by mid-January, the missing were declared dead—resulting in a total of 22 deaths.

New Zealand ordered 12,000,000 centimeters (190,000 square inches) of skin from the United States and Australia two days after the eruption.

    All but three of the survivors were severely injured, and the vast majority were severely burned. The survivors were initially taken to a local hospital where they were triaged and stabilized before being transferred to other hospitals in New Zealand. By December 10, the Ministry of Health announced that twenty-five people had been transferred to the country’s four burn units in Auckland, Middlemore, Hamilton, Lower Hutt, and Christchurch.

    Media reported that New Zealand ordered 12,000,000 centimeters (190,000 square inches) of skin from the United States and Australia to treat the patients two days after the eruption. Some of the survivors sustained burns on 95% of their bodies. Thirteen injured Australians were airlifted to hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne. The Royal Australian Air Force and several Australian state governments supplied aircrafts to assist in the airlift. 


“I am only here today because of their selfless act of donating. I’ll always be thankful to everyone who dropped what they were doing to 'just donate blood.'

-26-year-old survivor

    Along with the enormous amount of skin donated to help save the burn victims, blood and blood products came in from 751 donors. The young burn victim quoted above endured 14 surgeries, including skin grafts to her arms, legs, hands, and lower back, with more to come. She and other victims openly expressed their gratitude to those who 'dropped what they were doing' and donated blood to help them live through the immediate aftermath of the horrific tragedy.

    In addition to donations of blood and skin, many people donated cash. There were many stories in the media about large amounts of money donated by local citizens who wanted to help with many of the survivors' medical care. One report indicated that early on, as much as $200,000.00 had been raised to help victims. The family of an American couple who both perished in the tragedy pledged to set up a fund to support children worldwide with food, shelter, and education.

We are acutely aware that while there has been some resolution for the families of the six identified on the island, the families of others are still waiting to have their loved ones returned to them, and we will continue to support New Zealand police efforts to recover them.

-The NZ Defence Force

    Many examples of kindness and bravery appeared in the media in the days following the eruption. Once it was clear that there were no more survivors to search for, a team of eight specialist soldiers from the NZ Defence Force risked their lives to recover the missing eight victims. At daybreak on December 13, after prayer and a blessing were said, the men set out on the recovery effort. Family members displaying pictures of their missing loved ones and many holding balloons waited anxiously for the mission to yield results.

    When the team returned, they had recovered six of the missing eight victims. The families applauded and cheered when they returned, grateful that more of the missing were being united with their families. Of the two still missing, one was reported to have died while he was attempting to save others.

    On December 15, the search for the two missing victims was terminated. Authorities believe the two missing people were swept to sea.

Royal Caribbean’s Care Team and Air New Zealand’s Special Assistance Teams

    From the moment news reached Miami, the home of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, a robust response was launched. The Foundation was alerted within a few hours, and the leadership team began attending appropriate calls to assess any geographical or other needs that we might help meet. Coordination was established fairly soon with the leadership of the Special Assistance Team at Air New Zealand for deployment. 

    By visiting this link, those interested can view the memorial services that were held one year later. 

    In an upcoming webinar, Foundation members and Aviem International clients will hear directly from Ray Gonzalez who heads up Royal Caribbean’s Care Team and Rachel Moon, who directs the Air New Zealand Special Assistance Team. 

Foundation members and Aviem International clients can register for the February 25th webinar. Morning session: click here Evening session: click here

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