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Questions must be asked and answered about New Zealand’s White Island volcano

Posted on 10th December 2019 at 09:24am

New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has said that there are questions which must be asked after the volcanic eruption on White Island on Monday December 9, 2019.

White Island, also called Whakaari, is the country's most active volcano. Despite this, the privately owned island is a tourist destination with frequent day tours and scenic flights available. Image copyright: BBC courtesy of Google

Five people are dead and eight are missing on the island - although police say they are also likely to have died. Officers earlier announced that a criminal investigation would be opened, but later revised this, saying it was "too early" to say. Some 47 people from around the world were on the island during the eruption.

"We know there will be bigger questions in relation to this event," Ms Ardern said. "These questions must be asked and they must be answered."

Three weeks ago, the threat level at the volcano had been raised from one to two out of five, describing the situation as "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest". Since the eruption, experts are arguing whether the tours to the island were a disaster waiting to happen or still safe enough for visitors. Yet while GeoNet, a geological hazard monitoring group, warned last week that White Island may be entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal, it also stated: "The current level of activity does not pose a direct hazard to visitors". Currently, the alert level is at three, indicating a minor volcanic eruption.

Thirty-four people have been rescued, and most of them are still receiving treatment in hospital. Doctors said some of their burns are so severe they may not survive. Police were not certain what state the bodies that remained on the island were in, saying that they were probably covered in ash.

The tourist attraction remains too dangerous to access, but reconnaissance flights conducted earlier on Tuesday saw no survivors. Ms Ardern reported that there were no signs of life on the island and that the focus is now on recovery. "To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief in this moment at time and in your sorrow," she said.

Who was on the island?

There were 24 visitors from Australia, nine from the US, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two from China, two from the UK, and one person from Malaysia. The first victim to be identified was tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman, a local of nearby town Whakatane who, according to New Zealand media, has been named by his brother on Facebook.

The second person confirmed to have died is from Malaysia, the country's High Commission said. Another tour guide from New Zealand, 23-year old Tipene Maangi, is among the missing - with his family telling media he was called in on his day off.

Officials said people that have burns to more than 30 per cent of their bodies were in hospital receiving care. Several others are also suffering from inhalation burns. Two British women were among those receiving treatment, according to the UK High Commissioner to New Zealand, Laura Clarke.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that he feared that three of the five confirmed dead were Australian. Mr Morrison said that 24 Australians were on board a cruise ship exploring the island in the Bay of Plenty when the volcano erupted. Of those, 13 were in hospital and 11 were unaccounted for, he said.

"This is a terrible tragedy, a time of great innocence and joy interrupted by the horror of that eruption," Mr Morrison told reporters in Sydney. Ms Ardern acknowledged the apparently high number of Australian victims, saying: "Can I say to our Australian family, there are no two countries closer and we are devastated at what has happened?"

What happened at the volcano?

The volcano erupted in two explosions in quick succession at around 14:11 (01:11 GMT) on December 9, sending up a thick plume of ash and smoke. A live feed from the volcano showed several visitors inside the crater before the stream went dark. According to Ms Ardern, there were two groups on the island at the time, one close to the eruption and one that was able to be evacuated.

Some survivors were rescued by boat in the immediate aftermath of the explosion, but police said it was too dangerous to mount a rescue operation. But later private helicopter rescue missions picked up several people from the island.

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Ardern paid tribute to helicopter crews who had flown to the island on Monday to bring people out despite the dangers. "I want to acknowledge the courageous decision made by first responders and those pilots who, in their immediate rescue efforts, made an incredibly brave decision under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in an attempt to get people out," she said.

Since then, emergency services have been unable to search the area because of dangerous conditions, with plumes of smoke and ash continuing to rise above the volcano the day after it erupted. Authorities said that there was a 50 per cent chance of a second eruption of the same size or smaller in the next 24 hours, but that it was unlikely there would be a bigger eruption that would affect the mainland.

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Reproduced under licence from BBC News © 2019 BBC

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