New Zealand volcano toll increases as anniversary nears

In a photo from Dec 16, 2019, a police search and rescue team returns to New Zealand’s Whakatane Airport after searching for bodies following the eruption of the White Island volcano. PHOTO: REUTERS

WELLINGTON (AFP) - New Zealand police raised the official death toll from last year's White Island volcanic eruption to 22 on Thursday (Nov 26), adding a German national who succumbed to his injuries in July.

Police said Mr Horst Westenfelder, 64, died on July 2 from medical complications arising from injuries suffered during the eruption.

There were 47 people, mainly Australian tourists, on the island - also known as Whakaari - in December 2019, when a column of burning ash and steam blasted from a volcanic vent.

In a statement released by police, Mr Westenfelder's wife Angelika paid tribute to her husband's bravery.

"It is unbelievable, how many months my joyful, sensible and strong husband Horsti was fighting for his life, and I am thankful to everyone who was thinking of us and helping us during that very hard time," she said.

"He lost this battle and started his last journey in July."

Asked why it took almost five months for Mr Westerfelder's death to be included in the official toll, police said the change was made "as soon as practicably possible".

New Zealand employment safety regulator WorkSafe has been investigating why tourists were visiting an active volcano three weeks after its eruption alert level had been raised.

It is expected to complete its report before the disaster's anniversary on Dec 9.

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