New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed “unfathomable grief” on Tuesday after a volcanic eruption at a popular tourist island, as the police announced that it is launching a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the deadly tragedy.
PM Ardern confirmed five fatalities and said eight people were still missing after Monday’s eruption at Whakaari, also known as White Island.
There was little hope of finding the missing alive, after overnight aerial reconnaissance flights found no signs of life. The police said that the bodies left on the island are covered in ash.
“The focus this morning is on recovery and ensuring police can do that safely,” she added.
Tourists from Australia, United States, United Kingdom, China and Malaysia, as well as their New Zealand guides were in the island at the of the cataclysm.
31 people were in hospital with various injuries, some listed as critical with serious burns.
Of those those who were injured, police said on Tuesday that 27 of them suffered greater than 71 percent body surface burns.
White Island Tours, a trip operator, confirmed that two of its guides were unaccounted for.
Concerns about further eruptions, poisonous gases and choking ash prevented efforts to recover bodies.
When the blast occurred, it was being visited by a group of more than 30 people from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, the Ovation of the Seas, which left Sydney on a 12-day voyage last week.
The threat level at the volcano had been raised in recent days, and questions are already being asked about whether it was safe for tour groups to visit.
Cruise operator Royal Caribbean had sold a day trip to White Island as an “unforgettable” adventure to New Zealand’s most active volcano, one that took visitors so close to the action they could require gas masks and hard hats.
White Island Tours said it “operates through the varying alert levels” but that “passengers should be aware that there is always a risk of eruptive activity regardless of the alert level”.
Scientists said there had been increased activity at the volcano over the past week – but nothing to indicate an eruption was imminent.
The criminal investigation will look into why tourists were allowed despite an earlier warning about volcanic activity.