Eight people are missing and presumed dead following Monday’s volcanic eruption in New Zealand, police have confirmed.
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, newlyweds Matthew and Lauren Urey, were reportedly among the seriously burned in the deadly eruption.
They had been on a day drip to White Island from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, when the volcano went off, Mr Urey’s mother Janet Urey said.
“The phone rang at midnight. Then I heard a voicemail come on. It was my son,” Ms Urey said, adding: “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, the newspaper reported.
Royal Caribbean confirmed several passengers on the 16-deck cruise liner were on a day trip to the island but did not provide further information.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said three Australians were feared to be among the confirmed fatalities, with 13 among the injured.
Britain’s high commissioner to New Zealand confirmed two British women were among the injured, 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.”
Police said of the 47 people on the uninhabited island at the time of the eruption – 24 were from Australia, nine from the United States, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and the UK and one from Malaysia.
Peter Watson, the New Zealand government’s chief medical officer, said burns units across the South Pacific nation of 4.5 million are full to capacity.
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.
However the volcano attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year to the privately owned island, which is marketed as “the world’s most accessible active marine volcano”.