New Zealand volcano: Six confirmed dead as police launch investigation

  • The rise of ‘volcano tourism’ – a disaster waiting to happen
  • In pictures: White Island erupts
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New Zealand police will conduct an investigation into the deaths of at least six people on White Island after a volcano erupted on Monday.

John Tims, the deputy police commissioner, confirmed that two of the 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption were British nationals. He said six people are confirmed dead and eight missing, presumed deceased: "I would strongly suggest that there is no one that has survived on the island."

Asked if the investigation would focus on the tour operators to the island, Tims said: “We’ll look into if there was anyone criminally responsible for the deaths and injuries. It’s early days yet. So we’re just going to have to work through the evidence, talk to people, and conduct the investigation."

Dr Pete Watson, of the Ministry of Health, said of the 31 injured, 27 had very serious burns covering more than 30 per cent of their body . “Not all of the patients will survive,” he said.

Dr Watson said the National Burns Unit in New Zealand saw, in one day, the equivalent workload to a year under normal circumstances.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has sent a team to work for foreign diplomatic missions in New Zealand to assist family members of the dead, missing and injured. Three of the dead are believed to be Australians.

The bodies of the dead have been transferred to Auckland for post mortems to be carried out.

Hopes are fading for the eight people still missing. Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, said there were "no signs of life" on White Island after reconnaissance flights. In a press conference on Tuesday, police said that there were no survivors on the island and that bodies remaining around the volcano were covered in ash.

White Island victims | Where were they from?

Ms Ardern said tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China and Malaysia were among the missing and injured, along with New Zealanders.

She has said there would be a government inquiry into the incident.

"To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief in this moment of time and in your sorrow," Ms Ardern said at a news conference in Whakatane, a town on the North Island’s east coast, about 50km (30 miles) from White Island. 

What we know so far

  1. Six people confirmed dead
  2. British citizens among those missing and injured
  3. At least 31 treated for injuries
  4. At least eight people remain missing
  5. No sign of life detected by helicopter
  6. Island too dangerous for rescue attempts
  7. Volcano erupted just after 2.10pm local time
  8. Ash plume reached 12,000ft (3,657m)
  9. White Island is New Zealand’s most active volcano

A crater rim camera, owned and operated by New Zealand’s geological hazards agency GeoNet, showed one group of people walking away from the rim inside the crater just a minute before the explosion. Other webcams showed the explosion that shot an ash plume about 12,000 feet (3,658 m) into the air.

"It’s now clear that there were two groups on the island – those who were able to be evacuated and those who were close to the eruption," Ms Ardern added.

GNS Science, New Zealand’s geoscience agency, warned there was a 50/50 chance of another eruption in the next 24 hours, as the volcano vent continued to emit "steam and mud jetting".

Eyewitnesses have detailed the horrific burns suffered by some survivors.  Geoff Hopkins, whose tour group was just leaving the island at the time of the eruption, said he helped pull critically injured survivors into a boat.

Hopkins, 50, who was given the tour as a birthday gift, said many of the survivors had run into the sea to escape the eruption.

"They were just so massively burnt," he told the New Zealand Herald. "People were in shorts and T-shirts so there was a lot of exposed skin that was massively burnt."

Russell Clark, an intensive-care paramedic worker, said the scene looked like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, "just blanketed in ash".

"It was quite an overwhelming feeling," Mr Clark told TVNZ. "There was a helicopter on the island that had obviously been there at the time, with its rotor blades off it. I can only imagine what it was like for the people there at the time. They had nowhere to go. We didn’t find any survivors."

Stories are emerging of the heroism of those who tried to save people caught in the disaster.

A local boat skipper, Paul Kingi, was hailed for putting his life in danger to rescue victims. In a post on the Pursuit Fishing Charters page, owner Rick Pollock said Mr Kingi left the island "only minutes before the eruption” and when it happened he was "the first back on, rescuing and assisting numerous injured back onto the waiting boats”.

"He went back again and again, ignoring the toxic environment and personal risk, until he was satisfied there were no more obvious survivors remaining," Pollock said.

“This superhuman effort doesn’t surprise me in the least as I’ve seen this fine man in action on numerous occasions, always controlling a bad situation.

"I’d like to recognise Paul for what he is on this occasion, nothing less than a hero."

Ms Ardern read a statement to New Zealand’s parliament in which she paid tribute to the emergency services and the families of the victims. 

New Zealand volcano

“To our international partners and friends, we will do everything we can to support you as you have supported us in times past.

“In particular, our family in Australia has been heavily impacted. We feel the pull of our bond acutely at this time.”

Scott Morrison, Australia’s Prime Minister, said three Australians were feared to be among the confirmed fatalities, with 13 among the injured.

"I fear there is worse news to come," Mr Morrison said.

Gallery New Zealand volcano

Laura Clark, Britain’s High Commissioner to New Zealand, confirmed on Twitter that two British women were among the injured in hospital.

Royal Caribbean confirmed late on Monday that several passengers on its a 16-deck cruise liner, Ovation of the Seas, were on a day trip to the island but did not provide further information.

Janet Urey, 61, a nurse from Richmond, Virginia, said her son Matthew, 36, and his wife, Janet, 32, were cruise passengers injured in the eruption while on their honeymoon.

"The phone rang at midnight. Then I heard a voicemail come on. It was my son. He said, ‘Mom … this is not a joke. A volcano erupted while we were on the island. We’re at the hospital with severe burns.’"

Ms Urey said she was frustrated by the lack of information from the cruise ship he was on and from authorities.

"I have not heard a word from the cruise people," she said.

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