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Rescuers Can't Get to New Zealand Volcano Victims Because They're Afraid of Another Eruption

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said recon flights had shown no signs of life, and government officials warned that more of the injured could die from horrific wounds.

by Tim Marcin
Dec 10 2019, 6:01pm

The deadly volcanic eruption on New Zealand’s White Island on Monday has now claimed six lives and 30 injuries, and authorities are losing hope anyone else will survive as rescue efforts have been thwarted over fears of another eruption.

Police confirmed the sixth fatality on Tuesday, saying the victim ultimately succumbed to their injuries at a local hospital. The island is officially uninhabited, but 47 tourists were believed to be there at the time of the eruption. Eight people remain missing and authorities doubt they've survived.

Rescuers landed on the island in the immediate aftermath of the eruption but haven’t been able to make their way back because of gray ash clouds, unstable ground conditions, and fears of a second eruption.

“The scale of this tragedy is devastating,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in parliament. “To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your grief and sorrow and we are devastated.”

Ardern said recon flights had shown no signs of life and government officials warned more could die as they battled horrific wounds. Thirty people were injured by the eruption that shot ash some 12,000 feet in the air. Peter Watson, the government’s chief medical officer, said most who suffered injuries burned more than 70 percent of their body, according to Reuters.

Horrific footage of the eruption showed people scrambling to make their way off the island. Others videos showed the island completely engulfed in ash.

Many are questioning why tourists were allowed near the volcano in the first place. Arden suggested there would be an investigation into the incident. Police backed off an earlier statement suggesting there would be a criminal investigation, but did say they'd be working with WorkSafe New Zealand, which regulates workplace safety.

“I have to say that I’m very surprised to hear there were visitors there [Monday afternoon], because scientists seem to have been well aware that White Island was entering a phase of heightened activity,” Drexel University volcanologist Loÿc Vanderkluysen told Reuters. “I’ve been to White Island before, but I don’t think I would have been comfortable being there [Monday].”

READ: 'No signs of life' after volcano on New Zealand's White Island erupts

A number of the tourists burned by the volcano came from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship in the area. Barbara Barham told the Washington Post that her newlywed daughter and son-in-law were on the island when the eruption happened and were injured. She said she was “livid” a tour operator had taken them to the island when there’d been signs of a coming eruption.

“There’s been warnings about it,” Barham told the Post. “My son-in-law never would have booked the excursion if he knew there was any chance of them being injured.”

GEONet, which tracks geological hazards in New Zealand, had the volcanic alert at a two out of five ahead of the eruption, having observed “substantial gas, steam and mud bursts.” The eruption Monday was actually considered to be relatively minor despite being incredibly dangerous for anyone in the area.

“In the scheme of things, for volcanic eruptions, it is not large,” Ken Gledhill of GeoNet told the Associated Press. “But if you were close to that, it is not good.”

The volcano last erupted in 2016 and last had fatal eruption in 1914. Thousands of tourists visit the island every year.

Cover: This Dec. 9, 2019, photo provided by Michael Schade, shows the eruption of the volcano on White Island, New Zealand. Unstable conditions continued to hamper rescue workers from searching for people missing and feared dead after the volcano off the New Zealand coast erupted in a towering blast of ash and scalding steam while dozens of tourists explored its moon-like surface. (Michael Schade via AP)

Jacinda Ardern
volcanic eruption
white island