Danger of fresh eruption prevents search parties landing on White Island

The threat of the volcano on White Island off New Zealand erupting again has prevented rescuers from setting foot on the island in any attempt to find survivors. However, aerial reconnaissance has found no sign of any survivors still on the island.

The death toll rose from five to six on Tuesday after one of the 30 people injured by the eruption died. Many of the survivors are badly burned and have suffered internal lung damage from the hot air inhaled.

Most of the injured had suffered greater than 71% body surface burns, said Peter Watson, the government’s chief medical officer. He had warned that some might not survive. Burns units across New Zealand were full to capacity, he said.

Police said that they doubted whether any more survivors would be found. Eight people were still missing.

The majority of the tourists on New Zealand’s White Island during Monday’s volcano eruption were passengers on Royal Caribbean’s cruise ship Ovation of the Seas (IMO 9697753) which left Sydney on December 4th and stopped near Russell and Auckland, on New Zealand’s North Island, before arriving in Tauranga on December 8th, about 90 km (56 miles) from White Island.

Ovation of the Seas had provisional departure time of 07:15 on December 11th. Of the 47 people on the island during the explosion, 38 were cruise passengers from the ship. The cruise ship stayed an extra night in the Port of Tauranga while the situation continued to develop. The ship was due to conclude its cruise in Sydney on December 16th.

Twenty-four came from Australia, nine from the United States, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and the Britain and one from Malaysia.

Police said an investigation into the deaths on White Island had been launched but said that it was not a criminal investigation.

New Zealand’s geological hazards agency GeoNet raised the alert level for the volcano in November because of an increase in volcanic activity. The volcano’s last fatal eruption was in 1914, when it killed 12 sulphur miners.

Daily tours had been bringing more than 10,000 visitors to the privately owned island every year. It was marketed as “the world’s most accessible active marine volcano”.

A crater rim camera owned and operated by GeoNet showed one group of people walking away from the rim inside the crater just a minute before the explosion. “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,” New Zealand prime minister Ardern said at a morning news conference in Whakatane, which is a town on the mainland’s east coast, about 50 km from White Island.

The Buttle family have owned the island for over 80 years, and a spokesman said they were devastated by the tragic event.

New Zealander 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. “People were in shorts and T-shirts so there was a lot of exposed skin that was massively burnt,” he told the NZ Herald.