After a victim died in a hospital, authorities have now confirmed six deaths out of a total of 47 people, mostly tourists who were on the uninhabited island when the volcano erupted on Monday afternoon with the expulsion of rocks and a large ash cloud.
However, the police said there were “strong indications” that nobody remaining on the island would have survived, which could take the death toll to 14, as eight people remain missing.
A total of 31 people had been admitted to burns units of several hospitals, including around 20 with severe injuries.
The identities of the deceased have not been revealed, but it was confirmed that they included one Malaysian and a New Zealander, while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison claimed that the rest could be Australians.
New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims announced in a press conference that they would open a criminal probe, which a later police statement corrected, saying it was “too early to confirm whether there will also be a criminal investigation”.
The deputy commissioner did not reveal how far the investigation would go, but said tour operators who organize excursions to the isle – 48 km (about 30 miles) east of North Island and run by a private foundation as a nature reserve since 1952– would be investigated.
The Whakaari or White Island was visited by 17,500 tourists last year.
Paul Quinn, chairman of the firm White Island Tours, told public broadcaster TVNZ that the company had taken the call to go ahead with a tour based on the reports of the official body GNS Science, according to which it had been deemed safe to carry out tourist activities.
However, other geographical experts have said that White Island was a disaster waiting to happen and it was too dangerous to organize tourist activities near the volcano.
On Dec. 3, the geological activity control group GeoNet warned that the Whakaari volcano might be “entering a period where the eruptive activity is more likely than normal,” although it said that the situation would not pose a direct danger to visitors.
Tims said authorities had access to a series of images through which they have identified six locations where the bodies of missing people could be found, although they were yet to locate the remaining two tourists.
The victims could be buried under the ash emitted by the volcano, which has continued to be active, with geologists warning of a 50 percent possibility of another eruption within the next 24 hours.
Authorities were continuing to work with geologists Tuesday to regain access to the island.
The search and rescue team could not access the island due to bad weather conditions Tuesday, with strong winds preventing the use of a drone to study the emission of gases and determine if it was safe to return to the island.
Pete Watson, the health ministry spokesperson, said some of the injured may not survive, adding that 27 of them had sustained burns on more than 30 percent of their bodies, although three survivors had been discharged from the hospital.
Among the 47 affected were tourists of various nationalities: 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and one Malaysian.
New Zealand authorities have established a security perimeter and the immediate cancellation of all excursions, including tourist boats, around the island. EFE