It looked like the surface of the Moon in broad blue daylight. Something grey and weird, a big lump of rock and dust, good for nothing, lifeless and inert except for one very active and horribly fatal thing: smoke.
Like everyone else yesterday afternoon and into the night, I stared at the images of White Island taken by tourists Michael Schade and Allessandro Kauffmann. They put them on Twitter and Instagram, and soon their pictures were published and broadcast all over the world. There was the video taken from a boat of the island busting apart, the sky going black. A picture of a helicopter looking mangled, and covered in ash, not far from the shore.
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And, worst of all, that shot of a group of tourists on the crater floor moments before it erupted, releasing a mixture of magma gases such as carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide:
"There's pretty much every nasty gas you can think of," GeoNet volcanologist Geoff Kilgour told a reporter.
The nasty gas, the insane noise, the shock and awe of it ... We say at times like this that it's an unimaginable terror but it's not so much we can't imagine it as we don't want to even try.
Everyone who has lived near the coast of the Bay of Plenty knows White Island by the sight of its more or less constant little trail of volcanic smoke. It was a landmark out at sea, a familiar kind of smoke signal. Growing up in Mt Maunganui, I was barely aware of it - it was just background, a small, interesting detail. We all talked about White Island with affection.
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But as a name, as a concept, White Island is about to take on a new and terrible resonance. The first thing it'll mean when we hear it mentioned - like the rollcall of names Tangiwai, Erebus, Aramoana, Wahine, Pike River – is death.
The first reports yesterday talked of one fatality. At the 9pm police conference, it had gone up to five "at least". It was thought the number of those left on the island was in "the double digits", as police put it. Dead, or alive? They didn't say, and you pictured the island under darkness, and the possibility there were survivors on the shore. It was reportedly very cold in nearby Whakatāne last night, with a bitter wind, and there were bolts of lightning out at sea. But now it seems there wasn't anyone alive on White Island to see it. The only good thing is that the number was less than 10.
March 15, and now this. If only the worst thing in New Zealand life in 2019 was the All Blacks' exit from the World Cup. Annus bloody horribilis, the year of massacres and grief, sudden explosions, unimaginable terror. All our thoughts go out to the families and the rescue teams, the people most intimately affected by the consequences of something incredible – the ground opening up at 2.11pm, and fuming to the surface – on an island we took for granted was safe.
Christmas is just around the corner. Thank God for that. It'll be good to put this year behind us and head to the water, get some sun, and look out on to the blue horizon. White Island will resume its little benign puff of smoke in our land of the long white cloud.