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Recovery of victims from New Zealand volcano eruption delayed due to conditions

Monitoring agency GeoNet said further eruptions on White Island were ‘likely’.

The volcano on White Island, New Zealand erupts (Michael Schade/AP)
The volcano on White Island, New Zealand erupts (Michael Schade/AP)

By Alexander Britton and John Besley, PA

An operation to recover victims of a volcanic eruption which killed at least six people in New Zealand has been delayed amid fears of worsening conditions.

Monitoring agency GeoNet said further eruptions on White Island were “likely”, adding that the level of “volcanic tremor has significantly increased”.

Six people have been confirmed dead following the eruption, while two British women are believed to be among the 30 people in hospital, with all but five in a stable but serious condition.

Police said it was “too dangerous” to return to the island at the moment owing to the “serious physical and chemical hazards” rescuers would face.

Meanwhile, the British High Commission in New Zealand has urged Britons travelling in the country to contact their family and friends to let them know they are safe.

It comes as:

– Police released a partial list of those missing, including seven Australians and two New Zealanders;

– New Zealand’s Civil Defence Ministry said it was “absolutely imperative” to retrieve the bodies, but “the prevention of further human harm must be taken into account”‘

– Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall has declared the White Island eruption a “mass fatality incident” and said it could be “some weeks” before all the deceased are identified;

– The first Australian victims of the eruption have been named by a family friend as Julie Richards, 47, and her 20-year-old daughter Jessica.

The nature of the burns suffered is complicated by the gases and chemicals in the eruption Dr Peter Watson

On Wednesday evening local time, police named seven Australians and two citizens of New Zealand as being listed as missing.

Those listed were Australians Gavin Dallow, Jessica Edwards, Krystal Browitt, Richard Elzer, Zoe Hosking, Karla Matthews and Julie Richards. The two New Zealanders were Tipene Maangi and Hayden Inman.

Police said it was not a complete list of missing people as officers have not yet spoken to all next of kin.

Counties Manukau District Health Board’s chief medical officer Dr Peter Watson told reporters that 22 patients were on airway support “due to the severity of their burns and other injuries”.

He added that supplies – including an additional 1.2 million square centimetres of skin – would be needed to meet patient demand and will be ordered from the United States.

This is equivalent size to a fifth of a penalty area on a football pitch.

“The nature of the burns suffered is complicated by the gases and chemicals in the eruption.”

Dr John Kenealy, clinical director of surgery and perioperative services at the National Burns Unit, said the situation was “certainly unprecedented”, adding that some patients have up to 95% burns.

The alert level of a further eruption is at three, on a scale of one to five.

Graham Leonard, of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear sciences, said conditions on the island are worsening.

He added: “There are two key risks (on the ground). One: environmental. This is highly wind varying, but at times it will be challenging for breathing, seeing or walking on the island, and at other times clear.

“Second of all, there is the risk of another eruption like Monday’s eruption while on the island.’

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Coroner Deborah Marshall and Acting Assistant Police Commissioner Bruce Bird address a press conference in Whakatane, New Zealand (Nick Perry/AP)

He said the risk of a further eruption in the next 24 hours like that seen on Monday had increased to 40%-60% from 30%-50%.

National operation Commander Deputy Commissioner John Tims said: “The environment on the island has changed, (there has been) increased activity from earlier this morning.

“We are standing by to go back to that island.

“We are confident on our ability to deliver the rescue operation. But that is after we are sure that we can manage the real dangers that are on the island.”

Ms Marshall said the coroner’s office would work with pathologists, disaster specialists and odontologists to identify victims and return them to their families.

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New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, right, meets first responders in Whakatane (Dom Thomas/AP)

She said: “The highest standards are set to ensure the victims are correctly identified and returned to their loved ones.

“Depending on how long it takes to retrieve the deceased from the island, it could be some weeks before all the deceased are identified.”

The dead are thought to be buried beneath piles of ash, with most of the 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption believed to be from Australia.

Many were passengers on board the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation Of The Seas, including Julie Richards and her daughter Jessica.

Family friend John Mickel told reporters: “You obviously live in hope that’s it not going to be your loved one’s name that comes up, but the hope was snuffed out this morning with the message from the New Zealand police.”

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told parliament the “scale of this tragedy is devastating”.

White Island, also known by the Maori name Whakaari, is the tip of an undersea volcano 30 miles off the coast.

Scientists had noted an increase in volcanic activity in recent weeks, leading to questions as to why tourists were still being allowed on the island.

PA

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