Another New Zealand volcano victim dies in hospital, bringing toll to 19

Flowers are seen at a memorial at the harbour in Whakatane, following the White Island volcano eruption in New Zealand, on Dec 11, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND (AP) - The death toll from a volcanic eruption in New Zealand has risen to 19 after police said on Monday (Dec 23) that another person died at an Auckland hospital overnight.

There were 47 people visiting the tourist destination of White Island when the volcano erupted on Dec 9, killing 13 people initially and leaving more than two dozen others hospitalised with severe burns. The latest victim is the sixth person to die in hospitals in New Zealand and Australia in the two weeks since the eruption.

The bodies of two victims have not been recovered and the authorities believe they were washed out to sea in a storm soon after the eruption. Helicopter pilots and boat operators helped the injured off the island immediately after the eruption, but emergency services did not return to the island to recover bodies until four days later because they considered the site too dangerous.

In a brief statement on Monday, police said they had been advised just before 11pm on Sunday of the latest death at Middlemore Hospital. Police did not immediately the release the victim's name.

Many of those killed and injured were Australian tourists who had been travelling aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas. Among those hospitalised with injuries were American honeymooners Lauren Urey, 32, and Matthew Urey, 36, from Richmond, Virginia.

White Island, also known by its Maori name, Whakaari, is the tip of an undersea volcano about 50km off New Zealand's North Island and was a popular tourist destination before the eruption. It's unclear if the privately owned island will ever be reopened for tourist visits.

Many people have questioned why tourists were still allowed on the island after New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency raised the volcano's alert level on Nov 18 from 1 to 2 on a scale where 5 represents a major eruption, noting an increase in sulphur dioxide gas, which originates from magma.

New Zealand authorities are investigating the circumstances around the disaster.

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