New Zealand Volcano Still Too Dangerous for Rescue Crews, Officials Say

Efforts to recover victims were delayed again Wednesday, as an expert said there was a strong chance of another major eruption within 24 hours.

The eruption of the volcano on White Island off the coast of Whakatane, New Zealand, on Monday. Credit: Lillani Hopkins, via Associated Press

WHAKATANE, New Zealand — Rescue workers on Wednesday were again forced to delay attempts to reach White Island to recover the bodies of people believed to have been killed in a volcanic eruption there. The authorities said conditions were still too dangerous and unpredictable to risk the attempt.

A volcanologist, Graham Leonard, said at a news conference that the chance of another eruption on the scale of Monday’s explosion happening within the next 24 hours was between 40 and 60 percent. He added that for anyone traveling to the volcanic island now, even walking and breathing would be a challenge.

Dozens of people were rescued after the eruption Monday, but the authorities later said that eight people were still believed to be on the island and presumed dead. On Wednesday, the New Zealand police released a list of nine people who they said were officially considered missing, seven from Australia and two from New Zealand. The police would not explain the discrepancy.

Deputy Commissioner John Tims of the New Zealand police expressed frustration that recovery efforts had been delayed for a second day, but said the risks — including the hazards that toxic fumes could pose to rescue crews — outweighed the sense of urgency.

“My intent is absolutely to return to that island,” he said. “Those families and friends absolutely deserve closure, and I’m going to work really hard to make that happen.”

White Island — also known by its Maori name, Whakaari — erupted on Monday afternoon as 47 people were touring the volcano’s crater. As of Wednesday, eight people were confirmed to have been killed.

About 30 victims of the eruption, which covered the island in gray ash, have been sent to seven hospitals around New Zealand, because the nearest hospital’s burns unit was overwhelmed. Most of the injured had burns over at least 30 percent of their bodies.

About two dozen of the victims were Australian, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia said the country was sending three air force planes to bring some of them home. Other victims were from New Zealand, China, Germany, Malaysia, Britain and the United States.

Mr. Leonard, the volcanologist, said tremors on the island were escalating, increasing the chances of another eruption within the next day or so.

“There are two key risks,” he said. “The first is environmental — at times it will be challenging for breathing, walking and seeing on the island — and there are risks for another eruption.”

As of Wednesday afternoon, the GeoNet agency, which monitors geological activity in New Zealand, put White Island at threat level three out of five. After the eruption on Monday, it was raised to four.

White Island has long been a popular tourist destination, billed as offering a chance to get close to an active volcano. Before this week, the deadliest incident there had been in 1914, when 10 miners were killed after part of a crater wall collapsed.

The island, which is privately owned, became a scenic reserve in 1953, and more than 10,000 people visit each year. Since Monday, victims’ family members and others have asked why tours had been allowed to continue despite warnings that volcanic activity had been on the rise.

Originally published at on December 11, 2019.

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