Seven nations have been affected by the volcano disaster in New Zealand that has probably claimed 13 lives and left dozens with critical burn injuries.
Police on Tuesday said the 47 people on White Island at the time it erupted were from the UK, Germany, Australia, China, Malaysia, the U.S. and New Zealand. Five are confirmed dead and eight are missing presumed dead. Another 31 people are being treated at hospitals across the country — some in a critical condition — while three have been discharged.
Police have started an investigation into the tragedy, with terms of reference to be developed in coming days. They corrected an earlier statement that a criminal investigation would be launched, saying it was “too early to confirm” whether that would happen.
Monday’s unexpected eruption on White Island, a volcano about 48 kilometers (30 miles) off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, sent a cloud of scorching steam and ash thousands of meters into the air.
Badly burned survivors were evacuated by helicopter and boat immediately after the eruption, but police say the environment is currently too dangerous to recover the remaining bodies.
“We absolutely believe that everyone that could be taken from the island yesterday were rescued at the time of the evacuation,” Deputy Police Commissioner John Tims told a news conference Tuesday in Wellington.
Of those on the island, 24 were from Australia. Two were from the UK, four from Germany, two from China, one from Malaysia, nine from the U.S., and five from New Zealand. Tims was unable to specify the nationalities of the deceased and missing at this stage.
“The scale of this tragedy is devastating,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in parliament Tuesday. “Police and Defence Force personnel have undertaken a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island since the eruption, however no signs of life have been detected.”
Ardern paid tribute to first responders and helicopter pilots who flew in to rescue survivors.
“I want to acknowledge their courage,” she said. “In their immediate efforts to get people off the island, those pilots made an incredibly brave decision under extremely dangerous circumstances.”
At a news conference in Sydney, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said three Australians are believed to be among the five people confirmed dead. The others are either in hospital or remain unaccounted for.
“This is a very hard day for a lot of Australian families,” he said.
Many of the tourists visiting White Island were from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, which was berthed at the Port of Tauranga on Monday.
Operator Royal Caribbean confirmed some of its guests were touring the island and said it was working with authorities in the aftermath of the tragedy.
The eruption created an ash plume some 3.6 kilometers high, government agency GeoNet said. The volcanic alert level was immediately raised to four, one notch below its top reading, before being reduced to three, GeoNet said.
Questions are being asked about why tourists were allowed onto White Island, which attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year, when the alert level was in recent weeks raised to two, signaling “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest.”
“There will be bigger questions in relation to this event,” Ardern said. “These questions must be asked and they must be answered.”
New Zealand sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a belt of volcanic and seismic activity that rings the Pacific Ocean. The latest tragedy follows a devastating earthquake in the South Island city of Christchurch in 2011 that killed 185 people. The nation is still coming to terms with a terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques in March this year that killed 51 worshippers.
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