Tremors at New Zealand volcano island hinder recovery of bodies
WHAKATANE, New Zealand: Increasing tremors on a volcanic island in New Zealand have hampered efforts by authorities to recover the bodies of eight people thought to be left on the island, two days after it erupted.
When the volcano exploded it is believed to have sent superheated steam, ash and cannonball-like rocks hurtling from the caldera at supersonic speed.
Six people were killed in Monday's (Dec 9) explosion at White Island, which lies about 50km off the mainland, with another eight missing and presumed dead and 30 injured.
The Ministry of Health said 22 survivors being treated in hospital burns units around the country remained in a critical condition.
Police Minister Stuart Nash said injuries to tourists and guides exploring at the time were so severe that some victims could not identify themselves.
"There are a number of people in hospital who cannot communicate, they have significant burns not only to skin but internal organs," he told Radio New Zealand.
"We're working very closely with a number of agencies to ensure we get this identification right."
Nash said the survivors were receiving world-class treatment but warned "there are still some very, very seriously injured people in hospital".
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Reuters emergency officials were meeting on Wednesday morning to determine if a recovery effort could be launched.
"I've spoken to many of those involved in the operation and they are very, very eager to get back there, they want to bring people's loved ones home," Ardern said.
But a mid-morning update from geological agency GeoNet showed conditions on the uninhabited island remained dangerous, which would likely delay any recovery.
"Since around 4am this morning the level of volcanic tremor has significantly increased at the island," the agency said in a statement. "The situation remains highly uncertain as to future activity. Eruptions in the next 24 hours are still likely to occur."
A plume of smoke could be seen coming from the island on Wednesday morning.
RISKS TO BE CONSIDERED
Police said the safety of recovery teams was the priority and are awaiting advice from experts on when they could access the island. That has prompted some criticism authorities are being too cautious.
"We cannot put other people in jeopardy to go out there until we're absolutely certain that the island is actually safe," Acting Assistant Commissioner Bruce Bird told a media conference in Whakatane, the town that is an access point for tourist trips to the island.
Seismologists have predicted there is a 50 per cent chance of another eruption on the island, which sits semi-submerged 50km out to sea.
Poisonous gases are still pouring from the volcanic vent and the island is blanketed in a thick layer of acidic ash.
With weather expected to deteriorate on Thursday, pressure is building to begin the recovery operation.
"We're assessing all factors every two or three hours to see if we can go," superintendent Bird told reporters.
There were 47 people on White Island 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.
Australia says 13 of its citizens were being treated and 11 were unaccounted for, while two Britons have also been confirmed as injured and a local tour company says two of its guides are missing.
Malaysia's High Commission on Wednesday confirmed one Malaysian was critically injured, in addition to one previously announced death.