Whakaari/White Island eruption: Tragedy still raw for Whakatane six months on

Monday marks six months since Whakaari/White Island erupted and the tragedy is still raw for the town of Whakatane.

Twenty-one people were killed, two have never been recovered, and many survivors are still in and out of hospital and rehab with life-changing burn injuries.

The first news of the explosion came as a shock.

"A paramedic walked into my office and said he'd just been dispatched to a volcanic eruption on White Island," first responder Leisa Tocknell tells Newshub.

Tocknell was among the first paramedics to arrive in Whakatane after White Island suddenly and violently erupted.

She immediately set up a triage centre to assess patients both alive, and dead. And it was the smallest of details that made it all hit home.

"[One] patient had my date of birth. To write my date of birth down on that paperwork connected me to him, and when his birthday comes around I will be thinking of his family and sending them love," she says.

Forty-seven people from seven different countries were on the island at the time, all caught up in the desperate rescue operation that unfolded.

"I would think myself 'these people may not even make the helicopter flight to the hospital', and then the next day you heard they're still alive, the next week they're still alive, next month they're doing well," Tocknell says.

The stories of hope and survival provide comfort too to those whose loved ones were never found.

Today Mark Inman headed out to the island to say hi to his brother Hayden Marshall-Inman. Keeping an eye out, as he always does, for a sign the White Island tour guide is near.

"On his birthday Whakaari was reasonably active, or seemed to be that day, and we sort of joked and said it was him puffing out his candles," Inman tells Newshub.

Commercial tours to White Island stopped the day the volcano erupted. It's a day haunted by an insurmountable human cost, but the financial one has also been crippling for the Bay of Plenty town.

"Well because of COVID, for our district we felt like we'd been hit twice around the head basically," says Mayor Judy Turner.

Shops are stacked with unsold clothes and most rooms are empty down the motel strip.

"People were starting to come through and say 'oh how did White Island affect you' - and this was when COVID was starting to raise its head. And I said 'perhaps COVID is going to affect us more', and unfortunately, it's happened," says The Landing owner David Gardener.

And cafes are surviving on sheer but strong community spirit.

"I've been here my whole life, I've seen floods, and ruins and that come but I've seen the community come together, and it's no different with Whakaari and it's no different with COVID," Cafe 4 U owner Taylor Ulufonua says.

With alert level 1's arrival, the gateway to Whakaari is well and truly back open for business - even if for now Whakaari itself is not.

Both the police and WorkSafe are currently investigating the eruption. Despite some delays due to restrictions around by COVID-19, the latter is still on track to be completed by the one-year anniversary. It is the largest investigation ever conducted by WorkSafe.

"To point blame is not fair, given the fact that the company and White Island Tours have been signed off three years in row by WorkSafe, they do everything by the book," Inman says.

"If it wasn't safe, they wouldn't have been there."

The kōwhai has been chosen as a symbol for Whakatane going forward - a flower which represents the work people do to help others.

"You know, that's what he [Hayden] did that day, and it cost him his life," Inman says.

"But at the end of the day, we've got all those survivors who made it off and I think that's really special."

That selflessness is now a symbol of the town's future having already played such a big part in its past.