marks six months since "New Zealand came together as one big team" in a bid to save the lives of Whakaari / White Island eruption victims.
St John medical director Dr Tony Smith still sheds tears thinking about the "sheer volume" of badly burned patients on December 9.
But he is proud of the way tourist operators, emergency services and hospitals across the country responded on the "incredibly challenging" day.
The crater lake at New Zealand's most active volcano exploded two weeks before Christmas, fatally injuring 21 of the 47 people on the island at the time.
The harrowing injuries "deeply psychologically affected" Smith and many of his colleagues.
For the first time in his career, he sought help from workplace-provided psychologists to cope.
"What these patients experienced was hot acid, also mixed with sulphur. So it had been driven deeply into the skin."
Their lungs also had "significant chemical damage" from gas inhalation, despite many wearing masks.
Smith says "New Zealand came together as one big team" on December 9 and reiterates that tourist boats, helicopter pilots and Coastguard "played a very significant part in saving lives" at the island, 50km from Whakatāne.
St John and rescue helicopter services did not immediately allow medics to fly there.
Smith's helicopter was sent from Ardmore to Whakatāne Airport but was dispatched to Whakaari after five minutes in Whakatāne.
It was "a very small delay" but enough of one to stir public criticism.
"We absolutely acknowledge that controversy," Smith says, reflecting six months on.
"There are people who hold the view that we should have gone straight away [to Whakaari] without going to the airfield and I know of other people who believe we shouldn't have gone [to the island], and people who have criticised us for landing.
"Now knowing what has happened to the patients, I can confidently say that had we gone directly to the island ... unfortunately, we were not going to make a difference to those patients."
Two rescue helicopters landed on the island, leaving Smith and three other paramedics to find the victims, while their support hovered overhead.
They didn't know there were eight unaccounted for, and they did not find all eight on the island, but those they did find had not survived.
Meanwhile, two Whakatāne-based St John staff on a Coastguard boat met survivors on a White Island Tours boat, 10km out from Whakaari.
"They faced a very difficult scene ... In those circumstances, you don't have enough hands and you don't have enough equipment."
Other St John staff, Fire and Emergency New Zealand volunteers and police prepared for the tour boat's arrival at the Whakatāne Boat Ramp.
Whakatāne chief fire officer Ken Clark gathered his volunteers around him - about 35 including a handful from Ōhope and Maketū - to explain they'd be stretchering victims who couldn't walk off the boat.
"I told them there'd be no p****** around, no gawking, we had to just get in and do our job. And to their credit, that's exactly what they did."
The boat was unloaded in forty minutes.
"Police did the assessment ... They had a felt pen system and they put a mark on each person's forehead which indicated which way they were to go."
Clark and other volunteers knew the White Island Tours staff.
He warned his team: "You can't favour that person [you know], just don't do it."
Clark spoke to a Whakatāne man he knew well, who was at the wharf asking if his grandchild was on the boat and if they had burns.
"I said 'I do believe so mate' ... and just left it at that. That's not our job."
Clark says the volunteers have been "faring pretty well mentally" in the months since.
The day after the eruption, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern shared a morning tea with first responders at the Whakatāne Fire Station to thank them.
"That was pretty cool," he says.
"A thank you goes a long way."
As the morning tea was taking place, the last Whakaari victim was being transferred from Whakatāne Hospital.
On a normal day, the 110-bed hospital would have one senior and one junior doctor in the emergency department.
On December 9 there were close to 200 people across ED and the acute care unit.
Besides doctors and nurses, there were Māori health staff, social workers, occupational therapists, physios, pharmacists, podiatrists, radiographers, health care assistants, and Toi Te Ora public health staff.
Lab, stores, kitchen, admin, security and facilities staff were also involved, alongside orderlies, engineers, cleaners and volunteers.
Carloads of clinicians came from Tauranga Hospital to support.
The Bay of Plenty District Health Board has declined requests for interviews since December 9 but, in a statement, interim chief executive Simon Everitt said: "Staff were deeply impacted by the scale of trauma they faced."
Six months on, all Whakaari eruption victims have been discharged from New Zealand hospitals, but one remains in hospital rehabilitation in Australia.
Everitt said: "Seeing the survivors bravely share their recovery journey does bring some comfort" for Whakatāne Hospital staff.
Today, they "will take a quiet moment to reflect on the catastrophic event".
"Extraordinary commitment" from the Defence Force
"You can have all the tools and equipment but it is that ethos that allowed us to respond to the disaster quickly," New Zealand Defence Force Joint Forces Commander, Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour says.
The "extraordinary commitment" of his colleagues, from within minutes, is what he is most proud of.
Liaison officers were immediately sent to the National Crisis Management Centre under the Beehive, Police National Headquarters in Wellington, and the Whakatāne Emergency Operations Centre.
An Air Force Orion plane was diverted from surveying flooding on the South Island's West Coast to carry out a reconnaissance flight of Whakaari and provide images.
A King Air plane also flew the Prime Minister to the Bay of Plenty that night.
Meanwhile, two on-call helicopters with medics flew from Ōhakea Air Force Base to Whakatāne, then flew five seriously injured victims to Hutt Valley Hospital.
The naval patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington was at Devonport when the volcano erupted, having recently returned from six weeks of fisheries patrols.
The crew were immediately recalled and the ship left Auckland at 7pm.
The NZDF's immediate response involved more than 100 personnel.
The tragedy "tested all those involved", Gilmour says.
Police supporting victims, investigating
Six months on, police are both supporting victims and investigating the 21 deaths on behalf of the coroner.
Health and safety regulator WorkSafe is running a separate investigation.
In a statement, Bay of Plenty District Commander Superintendent Andy McGregor said the investigations were "complex".
"We continue to work closely with international police jurisdictions to support the victims and their families.
"The eruption at Whakaari/ White Island was not only life-changing for those on the island but also their families and loved ones. We continue to offer our sympathies to the victims."
"Raw emotion" remains
Whakatāne mayor Judy Turner said the "raw emotion" surrounding the eruption still "sits just below the surface but is easily brought back again", particularly for victims and families.
"A number of us found the recent documentary coverage of the event on television too hard to watch and changed channels."
The "very proud" mayor says "first responders were nothing short of heroic" and Ngāti Awa's support for affected families was "stunning".
"The unique way of caring for people really shone through."
Ngāti Awa owns White Island Tours and is privately commemorating the eruption today.
Despite the Whakatāne community being "tired and bruised", Turner says it remains resilient and caring.
"We will stand again, as we have done on numerous occasions."