Death toll rises to six, with eight more feared dead

A rescuer's boat leaving White Island following the eruption of the volcano, New Zealand, on Dec 9, 2019. PHOTO: AP

WHAKATANE (New Zealand) • Six deaths were confirmed after Monday's eruption of the White Island volcano and another eight people are believed to have died, with their bodies remaining on the ash-covered island for now.

Relatives were forced to continue waiting for news of their loved ones yesterday, with the authorities deciding it remained too dangerous for crews to land on the island and remove bodies.

Experts said there was a 50 per cent chance of another small eruption within a day and rescue teams did not want to take any chances. Police said they planned to send up drones to measure whether gas levels were safe.

The tragedy will have an ongoing effect on the town of Whakatane, which road signs tout as the gateway to White Island.

As well as being an important tourist draw for the 20,000 people who live here, the volcano has an almost mystical significance, its regular puffing a feature of the landscape.

Whether the island will ever host tourists again remains uncertain after the horrific tragedy that unfolded when the volcano exploded a little after 2pm on Monday.

In all, police believe there were 47 visitors on the island at the time. They say 24 were Australian, nine were American and five were New Zealanders.

Others were from Germany, Britain, China and Malaysia. Many were passengers aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation Of The Seas.

About 30 of the survivors remained hospitalised yesterday, many flown to burn units around the country.

The first confirmed death was that of a local man, Mr Hayden Marshall-Inman, a guide who had shown tourists around the island.

Former Whakatane mayor Tony Bonne said Mr Marshall-Inman was a keen fisherman and well liked. He was so kind, Mr Bonne said, that he would often leave extra money at the grocery store for those he knew were struggling to pay.

"Whenever he came in and made a purchase, he always gave us NZ$5 (S$4.50) to pay towards the next person's groceries," local supermarket worker Julie Lockett said of the guide. "He had the kindest heart, it was never about him; he definitely created a ripple effect of happiness to others."

Relatives have not given up hope for Mr Tipene Maangi, another guide thought to be on the volcano when it erupted.

Many people were left questioning why tourists were still allowed to visit the island after seismic monitoring experts raised the volcano's alert level last month.

"These questions must be asked and they must be answered," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in Parliament.

New Zealand's Deputy Police Commissioner John Tims said yesterday that the police were opening a criminal investigation into the deaths that would accompany an investigation by health and safety regulators.

But hours later, police put out a statement saying that while they were investigating the deaths on behalf of the coroner, "to correct an earlier statement, it is too early to confirm whether there will also be a criminal investigation".

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 11 Australians are unaccounted for and 13 were hospitalised. Three Australians were suspected to be among those confirmed dead, he told reporters in Sydney. "I fear there is worse news to come," he said.

A few locals laid flowers yesterday at a fence on the waterfront near where the rescue boats had returned with the injured.

New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency had raised the volcano's alert level on Nov 18 from one to two on a scale where five represents a major eruption, noting a rise in sulphur dioxide gas, which originates from magma. It also said volcanic tremors had increased from weak to moderate strength.

It raised the alert level to four for a time after Monday's eruption but lowered it to three as the activity subsided.


Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2019, with the headline Death toll rises to six, with eight more feared dead. Subscribe