Whakatāne Hospital workers recall 'all hands on deck' response to mass casualties from White Island disaster

They'd trained for a mass causality event, but no one could be prepared for Monday's deadly disaster at Whakaari/White Island.

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Whakatāne Hospital staff talk about putting their mass casualty plan put into action following volcano eruption. Source: 1 NEWS

A normal day at Whakatāne Hospital would consist of a handful of nurses and a couple of doctors on duty.

But when they got the call about the volcano eruption it was "all hands on deck". About 100 staff piled into the emergency department, acute care unit and theatres throughout the hospital.

Whakatāne Hospital medical leader and consultant anesthetist Dr Heike Hundemer revealed details of the response today, explaining that they used every single bed and resource they had.

"If we saw one patient with the severity of burns that we treated that day, this would have been a significant event for our small hospital," she said.

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Specialist teams from Britain, the US and Australia have offered help as clinicians in NZ work around the clock. Source: 1 NEWS

"What we were faced with Monday was beyond comprehension. We activated our mass casualty plan, which means staff from across the hospital made their way as fast as possible to our emergency department and also triggered a wider response for additional staff to get there from across the bay.

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Whakaari/White Island disaster: The first 48 hours

"Monday was beyond anything we would have anticipated. I've worked in major centres in Germany as well as in New Zealand - I've never seen this number of critically injured patients coming into an emergency department in a short space of time."

Ms Hundemer said staff had been "deeply impacted" by the event.

"Some of those people who have lost their lives were known to our staff," she said.

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The announcement follows growing frustration from families desperate for their loved ones to be retrieved from the eruption zone. Source: 1 NEWS

"We are professionals and compassionate people. Those patients we treated and comforted will forever stay in our minds."

Hospital coordinator Dave Van Dijk said staff rose to expectations beyond what was expected on the "devastating" day.

"It was all hands on deck," he said.

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1 NEWS reporter Katie Stevenson has this midday, December 12 update. Source: 1 NEWS

"We're extremely grateful for the support we received from the GPs and the health professionals in our community. When they heard what had happened, they came to the hospital with skills and knowledge and ready to help wherever they could.

"I couldn't be more proud of how our hospital and wider community came together to do what we could for those people."

Health Minister David Clark reiterated his words - acknowledging the compassionate and professional care by everyone involved on the day.

He said he'd had conversations with the hospital's chief executive already about how to support staff affected by the incident.

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The Australian military’s urgent evacuation mission continues tonight. Source: 1 NEWS

There are no patients still being treated at the hospital. Mr Clark said it was their job to resuscitate and stabilise victims to be transferred to where the next stage of care could be best delivered.

There are currently 23 patients being cared for at four hospitals around New Zealand – Middlemore, Hutt Valley, Waikato, Wellington and Christchurch. Of those, 17 patients are critical. Most suffered severe burns.

Five patients have been transferred to Australia on three flights. One patient left from Wellington for Sydney, three from Christchurch for Sydney and one from Auckland to Melbourne. All arrived in Australia safely.