By Charlotte Jones, Local Democracy Reporter
Nine months on from Whakaari, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the first scenes she saw of the first responders at work still lingered in her mind.
She said she also had strong memories of visiting victims in hospital and to hear how well they had recovered was "heartening" and a "real tribute" to New Zealand's healthcare workers.
The Prime Minister spoke to first responders on the nine-month anniversary of the Whakaari eruption, before moving to Te Puna Ora o Mataatua to speak to those on the Covid-19 front lines and finishing her tour at the Whakatāne Mill.
She said it was her first chance to come back and visit those who were first on the scene of the tragedy and to support them and the victims of Whakaari nine months on.
"In and amongst everything this is a really tight-knit community and they are continuing to support each other with the double-whammy of Covid as well," said Ardern.
"I really do believe that this happened in a community that is so tight-knit, that has such strong support networks within it, where people know one another has made a difference and you can see and feel it. It was incredibly traumatic for those involved."
Ardern said she had received letters from victims who said the support given to them by Ngati Awa had aided them in their recovery.
While Ardern was not solely in town to focus on White Island, the point was reinforced by National leader Judith Collins who said a Royal Commission into the disaster should be launched.
"I think it's something New Zealanders would want to see," said Collins. "I think people want answers."
When asked if it was appropriate for a Royal Commission of Inquiry to be launched, Ardern said the WorkSafe inquiry was still under way and needed to take its course.
"We need to let them do their job," she said.
"It feels we would be duplicating their work, and answers that will be provided by that inquiry. There are lessons to be learned and that needs to come from those who are in a position to look at all the evidence and that is the WorkSafe inquiry."
She said WorkSafe, coupled with the Coroner, would get the answers that the community needed.
Ardern said the tragedies which had punctured the past three years were now part of her DNA as well as New Zealand's.
"There has never been a moment that I have ever lost hope and I say that experiencing alongside New Zealand a terrorist attack, a volcanic eruption and a global pandemic, I have never lost hope," she said.
Following her Whakaari meeting, Ardern travelled to Te Puna Ora o Mataatua offices on King St to hear from its team how they managed on the Covid-19 frontlines.
Te Puna Ora led aspects of the local response as providers of Covid testing, food packages, and whanau ora support.
Ardern heard from staff how they supported the community and made it feel safe.
She also heard from staff and rangatahi who participated in the He Poutama Rangatahi programme and how it improved their lives.
Following this, Ardern had a site visit at the Whakatāne Mill.
Everywhere she went the Prime Minister was followed with cries of "I love you Aunty" and was told by multiple people she made them proud to be a Kiwi – testament to how popular she is in the Eastern Bay.