New Zealand volcano eruption: Police open probe into deaths; at least 5 killed

Remote video URL
Steam rises from the White Island volcano after it erupted on Dec 9, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

WELLINGTON (AP) - New Zealand police said on Tuesday (Dec 10) they were opening an investigation into the deaths of tourists on a volcanic island where a powerful eruption of ash and scalding steam occurred as dozens of people were exploring the barren landscape.

Five deaths were confirmed after Monday's eruption of the White Island volcano. Eight other people are feared dead, but unstable conditions on the island are continuing to hinder a search.

However, they backed away from an earlier announcement that the probe was a criminal investigation, saying instead it was being carried out on behalf of the coroner. No reason for the reversal was immediately provided.

Deputy Commissioner John Tims did not go into details of the investigation but said it would sit alongside an investigation by health and safety regulators.

The announcement indicates the authorities are concerned safety standards may have been breached.

Many people are questioning why tourists were still allowed on 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.

About 47 people were on the island at the time of the eruption, and some of those evacuated suffered critical burns.

"To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your grief and sorrow, and we are devastated," Ms Ardern said.

Experts said they thought there was still a 50 per cent chance of another small eruption taking place within the next day, making it too dangerous for search teams to return to the island.

Ms Ardern said aircraft have not seen survivors, and Mr Tims said attempts to send up drones were prevented by windy conditions.

The eruption, which occurred at about 2pm on Monday, sent a plume of steam and ash about 3,660m into the air.

Helicopter crews landed afterwards despite the danger and evacuated many survivors.

One of the rescue boats that returned from the island was covered with ash half a metre thick, Ms Ardern said.

Mr Russell Clark, an intensive care paramedic worker, said the scene looked like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, "just blanketed in ash".

Many of the visitors on the island at the time were Australians. New Zealanders and tourists from the United States, China, Britain and Malaysia were also affected.

Some of the visitors were passengers from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

A few locals laid flowers on Tuesday at a fence on the waterfront near where the rescue boats had returned with the injured, many of whom were flown to burn units at hospitals around New Zealand.

Remote video URL

White Island, also known by the indigenous Maori name Whakaari, is the tip of an undersea volcano some 50km off New Zealand's main North Island.

New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency had 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.

It also said volcanic tremors had increased from weak to moderate strength. It raised the alert level to 4 for a time after Monday's eruption but lowered it to 3 as the activity subsided.

Mr Richard Arculus, an Australian National University volcanologist who has made numerous visits to White Island, said the eruption likely sent a ground-hugging lateral blast from the crater to the jetty, as well as blasting rock and ash vertically skywards.

"In that crater, it would have been a terrible place to be," Mr Arculus said. "There would have been nowhere safe for you to be hiding, thinking that 'oh well, if it explodes, it just goes straight up in the air'."

White Island is New Zealand's most active cone volcano. About 70 per cent of the volcano lies under the sea.

Twelve people were killed on the island in 1914 when it was being mined for sulphur. Part of a crater wall collapsed and a landslide destroyed the miners' village and the mine itself.

The remains of buildings from another mining enterprise in the 1920s are now a tourist attraction. The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit every year.

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