WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that recovery teams were hoping to access the volcanic island on Wednesday where eight people are missing and feared dead, two days after an eruption killed six people.
FILE PHOTO: New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses the media following an eruption of the White Island volcano, in Whakatane, New Zealand December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Charlotte Greenfield
“That’s everyone’s hope,” Ardern told Reuters about the possibility of accessing White Island, which lies some 50 km (30 miles) off the mainland.
Ardern said emergency response officials would meet on Wednesday morning “to again start that process to try and get all information to make those decisions as quickly as possible.”
“I’ve spoken to many of those involved in the operation and they are very, very eager to get back there, they want to bring people’s loved ones home.”
The missing and injured include tourists from Australia, the United States, Germany, China, Britain and Malaysia, along with New Zealanders.
Authorities have been cautious about accessing the island, which was covered with hot ash and steam in the eruption, saying they did not want to put more lives at risk. New Zealand’s geological science agency on Tuesday put the risk of another imminent eruption at 50%.
Aerial surveillance has detected no signs of life on the island, where at least one tour group was captured on automated webcams in the crater just a minute before the eruption.
Ardern said the primary focus was on caring for some 30 people who were injured and were being treated in burns units at several hospitals.
“Our absolute focus at the moment is ensuring we have the very best care for those who are injured,” Ardern said in an interview at her office in Wellington’s parliament, where the country’s flag was flying at half-staff to respect victims of the tragedy. “I do understand that many have very critical injuries.”
The death toll from Monday’s eruption rose to six after one victim died in hospital on Tuesday.
RISKS TO BE CONSIDERED
‘One of the private helicopter operators who landed on the island after the eruption and carried survivors back to the mainland said he thought conditions had been favorable and a recovery operation could be done in about 90 minutes.
“For us, it’s 20 minutes to get out there. We could load those folks on and be back here in an hour and a half,” pilot Mark Law told the AM show on Three television.
“I know where they all are, and the conditions are perfect for recovery in my mind.”
Police Minister Stuart Nash said authorities had to consider the risks carefully.
“This isn’t police stonewalling in any shape or form. This is police ensuring that the men and women who do go across for recovery do so in a way that ensure that they are safe,” he told the AM program.
New Zealand’s geological hazards agency GeoNet raised the alert level for the volcano in November because of an increase in volcanic activity. The alert level was increased further after the eruption, and remains elevated.
A plume of smoke could be seen coming from the island on Wednesday morning.
Police said 47 people were on White Island at the time of the eruption. Twenty-four came from Australia, nine from the United States, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and Britain and one from Malaysia.
Reporting by Praveen Menon, Jane Wardell and John Mair; Editing by Sandra Maler and Peter Cooney
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