Five dead and eight missing after New Zealand volcano erupts

Questions over why tourists were on White Island after experts noted volcanic activity

Five people have died and eight are still missing after an eruption on a volcanic island in New Zealand, the country’s prime minister has said.

Jacinda Ardern confirmed that New Zealanders and tourists from Australia, the US, Britain, China and Malaysia were among the missing and injured. The police do not expect to find more survivors on White Island, where two explosions in quick succession sent up a huge plume of ash that could be seen from the North Island.

About 31 people remain in hospital after three people were discharged overnight. In total, 47 people visited the island on Monday.

Laura Clarke, the UK’s high commissioner to New Zealand, said two British women had been taken to hospital and that her team were providing assistance.

Ardern praised the efforts of helicopter pilots who flew to the island shortly after the eruption to rescue stranded people. She said they had made “an incredibly brave decision under extraordinary dangerous circumstances in an attempt to get people out”.

Every year thousands of tourists take boat trips and helicopter tours to view White Island’s dramatic landscape. Some have questioned whether the privately owned island, which is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, should have been operating as a tourist destination. The Māori name of the island is Whakaari.

Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Melbourne’s Monash University’s school of earth, atmosphere and environment, said it was “a disaster waiting to happen”.

“Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter,” Cas told the Australian Science Media Centre.

Ardern said the island had operated as a tourist site for decades, but added: “It is a very unpredictable volcano there will be questions that will be asked and do need to be answered by the appropriate authorities.”

She said that, for now, authorities were focused on “those who are caught up in this horrific event”.

A camera run by the geological hazard trackers GeoNet, which takes pictures of the site every 10 minutes, showed a group of people visiting the crater at 2.10pm. The next shot, taken at 2.20pm, was distorted by the blast.The eruption happened at 2.11pm on Monday, during the busy tourist season.

A pilot carrying out a reconnaissance flight on Monday physically moved around the island, rather than just carrying out an aerial survey, Ardern said. No signs of life had been seen, she added.

She told families whose relatives were missing or killed: “We share in your unfathomable grief at this moment in time and in your sorrow. Your loved ones stood alongside Kiwis who were hosting you here and we grieve with you and we grieve with them.”

The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, confirmed on Monday that Australians were among those visiting the island, adding: “We are working to determine their wellbeing.”

Michael Schade, who was visiting the island with his parents, had stood at the crater 20 minutes before the eruption. He was among a boatload of tourists just off the White Island who witnessed the disaster. The vessel returned to rescue a crowd of people on the jetty.

“Some people had pockets of burns, other people were fine, and others were really rough,” Schade told the Guardian on Monday. “Some were screaming, while others were in silent shock.”

Passengers set up an assembly line to pass water bottles to people with burns, as well as jackets, inhalers and eye drops.

Supt Bruce Bird said a scientific and technical committee was meeting in Wellington to determine whether it was safe for emergency services to go to the island. “I will reiterate we will only to the island when it is safe to do so for our people,” he added.

Unstable conditions, toxic gases and ash fall have prevented rescue teams from searching the island – which lies 30 miles (48km) from the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, in the Bay of Plenty – on foot.

Kevin O’Sullivan, the chief executive officer of the New Zealand Cruise Association, said a tour party of 30-38 people from the Ovation of the Seas had been touring White Island when the eruption took place, and the party had not returned. Their names and nationalities would be given to the police, he said. The ship would remain in Tauranga port at least overnight.

Royal Caribbean, which owns the Ovation of the Seas, asked for prayers to be said for all involved.

New Zealand Red Cross has created a family links webpage, where people can register the names of missing relatives, and where individuals can list that they are safe.

A pilot and four passengers whose damaged helicopter was shown in footage taken after the eruption were unharmed, it was confirmed on Monday. The aircraft belonged to Volcanic Air, a tour company based in Rotorua. It said the crew had been returned to the mainland by boat on Monday afternoon.

About 10,000 tourists a year visit the island, which was bought in 1936 by George Raymond Buttle, an Auckland stockbroker. It is now owned by the Buttle Family Trust.

The island previously experienced a short eruption in 2016, in which no one was hurt.

GeoNet raised the alert level for White Island in November after noting an increase in volcanic activity, from one to two on a scale where five represents a big eruption.

source: the guardian

by Rebecca Ratcliffe and Eleanor Ainge Roy

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