‘Highly volatile’ NZ volcano prevents body recovery, death toll rises to eight

WHAKATANE/WELLINGTON (Reuters) – The New Zealand volcano that fatally erupted earlier this week is “highly volatile” and could explode again in the next day, making it too risky to send in recovery teams to retrieve bodies, officials said on Thursday.

People leave after a ceremony called “Karakia”, attended by Ngati Awa representatives and relatives of the volcano eruption victims at Mataatua Marae house in Whakatane, New Zealand, December 12, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

The bodies of eight victims presumed dead are on White Island, and the official death toll is expected to rise from eight to 16. More than two dozen people are in hospital, many in a critical condition with burn injuries. One of the injured has not yet been identified.

“We are now living with a growing sense of desperation to bring home those that we know are there and those we love,” Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner told reporters. “The frustration of those families most affected is completely understandable. No news is not good news for people in this situation.”

The volcano, a popular tourist day-tripper destination, erupted on Monday, spewing ash and steam over the island.

There were 47 people on the island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, at the time of the eruption. Twenty-four of those were from Australia, nine from the United States, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and Britain and one from Malaysia. One un

Nico Fournier, a volcanologist at New Zealand’s geological science agency GNS Science, said monitoring equipment still active on the island put the risk of a further eruption over the next 24 hours at 50% to 60%.

“We believe that there is shallow magma, the molten rocks, which is driving the activity under the surface … which is the level of tremor that is increasing, and it keeps increasing

as we speak as well,” Fournier told reporters.

“The consequence of those processes is that the situation remains highly volatile,” he said.

In the event of another eruption, anybody on the island could be “pummelled to death” by flying rocks or overcome by ash and gases in temperatures exceeding hundreds of degrees celsius, Fournier said.

New Zealand Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Clement said the risk of both another eruption and toxic gases were simply too great to expose recovery teams, although the situation was being constantly reviewed.

“I don’t have a plan that satisfies me that the risk is able to be mitigated … to keep people safe,” Clement told reporters. “I can’t give an assurance around a timeline because the reality is I don’t control all of the factors yet.”

Royal Caribbean (RCL.N) cruise lines has said that passengers from its ship Ovation of the Seas were on the island at the time, but it did not respond to a request from Reuters for more detail. The Ovation of the Seas docked in Wellington on Thursday morning.


Many of the injured are being treated for severe burns, and medical officials are importing some 1.2 million square cm (186,000 square inches) of skin. The amount of skin needed equates to about 60 donors. In New Zealand, only five to 10 people donate skin each year, the New Zealand Herald newspaper reported.

Teams of surgeons in several burns units around the country were working around the clock.

“It’s one of the most challenging things to look at because you know the patients are in so much pain and will be fighting for their life for the next two or three weeks and even then they could die,” John Bonning, president of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, told the newspaper.

The Australian government was in the process on Wednesday of transferring up to 10 injured citizens from overloaded burns units in New Zealand.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said there will be an inquiry into the tragedy, which will also look more broadly at issues including access to volcanic sites across New Zealand.

Daily tours bring more than 10,000 visitors to privately owned White Island every year, marketed as “the world’s most accessible active marine volcano”.

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Geological hazards agency GeoNet raised the alert level for the volcano in November because of an increase in volcanic activity. The alert level was increased further after the eruption.

Geonet reduced the level on Thursday because there has not been any further eruptions activity since Monday’s fatal eruption, but the agency cautioned that the “likelihood of future eruptive activity in the next 24 hours remains” as volcanic tremors increased to “very high levels” overnight.

Reporting by Jane Wardell, Praveen Menon and John Mair in Wellington and Charlotte Greenfield in Whakatane; Additional reporting by Tom Hals in Delaware; Editing by Peter Cooney

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