Increased activity on New Zealand’s Whakaari stymies recovery

Eruptions in the next 24 hours still likely, making it difficult for crews to recover bodies in ash-covered island.

Plumes of steam rise above Whakaari Island on Wednesday, making it difficult to recover bodies of those who were killed during the eruption on Monday [Mark Baker/AP]
Plumes of steam rise above Whakaari Island on Wednesday, making it difficult to recover bodies of those who were killed during the eruption on Monday [Mark Baker/AP]

Experts said geothermal activity on New Zealand‘s Whakaari Island increased significantly on Wednesday, dealing a blow to relatives waiting for crews to recover the bodies that remain there following a deadly eruption two days earlier.

Volcanic tremors rose in the morning, accompanied by an increase in the amount of steam and mud being released at Whakaari, also known as White Island, the GeoNet seismic monitoring agency said.

“We interpret these signals as evidence of continued high gas pressures within the volcano,” the agency said.

“The situation remains highly uncertain as to future activity. Eruptions in the next 24 hours are still likely to occur.”

Six deaths were confirmed after Monday’s eruption. Five people died at the time of the blast or soon after, while a sixth person died on Tuesday night at an Auckland hospital.

Another eight people are believed to have died, with their bodies remaining on the ash-covered island for now.

Another 30 people remain hospitalised, including 25 in critical condition. Many of the injured suffered severe burns.

Safety of recovery crew

Bruce Bird, an acting assistant police commissioner, said they were monitoring the situation hour by hour.

“Safety for our staff is a huge priority for us,” Bird said. “And we’ve got to get this right.”

Bird said they had deployed a drone over the island to measure gas levels after strong winds had thwarted those attempts on Tuesday.

But helicopter pilot Mark Law said the delay was hard to understand and that if he was making the decision, he would leave immediately.

“It would take 20 minutes to get out there. We know where they are,” he said, referring to the bodies. “Then, we could bring them home.”

Survivors from Monday’s eruption ran into the sea to escape the scalding steam and ash and emerged covered in burns, said those who first helped them.

Geoff Hopkins was in a boat offshore after visiting the island with his daughter on a tour that was a 50th birthday present for him. He told the New Zealand Herald the eruption at first looked beautiful but quickly turned menacing.

As injured people were transported onto their boat screaming in pain, Hopkins and his daughter Lillani poured fresh water onto them, cut them out of their clothes and tried to keep them calm.

He told the Herald they were horrifically burned on their exposed skin and faces, even under their clothes.

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, the UK, China and Malaysia. Many were passengers travelling with the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

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

Source: AP


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