Eight people are still missing and presumed dead following Monday’s volcanic eruption in New Zealand, police have said.
Rescuers have been unable to reach White Island since the devastating incident, with officials warning that there is a “50% chance” that another eruption could happen in the next 24 hours.
A total of 47 people were on the uninhabited island at the time. Five people have been confirmed dead, and more than 30 others are injured.
At a news conference, it emerged:
- Of the 31 injured, at least 27 have suffered greater than 30% body surface burns
- Some of those hurt could succumb to their wounds
- Burns units across the nation are “full to capacity”
- An investigation has been launched into the deaths on White Island
- Most of the victims are from Australia and New Zealand
- Tourists from the UK, the US, Germany, China, Malaysia are also affected
Many of the visitors were on a day tour from a cruise in a nearby port.
Speaking in parliament, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “The scale of this tragedy is devastating. To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your grief and sorrow and we are devastated.”
A helicopter rescue pilot who flew some of the victims to hospital told Television New Zealand they were in a “fairly serious condition”.
He added: “They were pretty poorly… but covered in ash, looking quite badly burned.”
An American couple from Virginia were among those who sustained serious burns after the eruption.
Newlyweds Matthew and Lauren Urey had been on a day drip to White Island from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas when the volcano went off.
His mother Janet said: “The phone rang at midnight. Then I heard a voicemail come on.
“It was my son. He said: ‘Mom… this is not a joke. A volcano erupted while we were on the island. We’re at the hospital with severe burns.'”
Mr Urey, 36, was airlifted to hospital in Christchurch with burns over 80% of his body – while his 32-year-old wife underwent surgery at an Auckland hospital with burns over 20% of her body.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said three Australians were feared to be among the five confirmed deaths, with 13 among the injured.
Britain’s high commissioner to New Zealand confirmed two British women were hurt, while Malaysia’s high commission in New Zealand said one Malaysian was among the dead.
An intensive care paramedic with a helicopter team, Russell Clark, said the early scenes were overwhelming.
“Everything was just blanketed in ash,” he said. “It was quite an overwhelming feeling.”
New Zealand’s geological hazards agency GeoNet raised the alert level for the volcano in November because of an increase in volcanic activity. The volcano’s last deadly eruption was in 1914, when it killed 12 sulphur miners.
White Island is privately owned and attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year.