New Zealand volcano eruption: Police open criminal investigation into deaths

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New Zealand police will open a criminal investigation into a deadly volcanic eruption at a popular tourist spot that killed at least five people and left dozens of others with severe burns to their bodies.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, New Zealand Deputy Commissioner John Tims said an investigation would be conducted into the circumstances surrounding the incident on White Island, also known as Whakaari, in the coming days.

Eight people are still missing after Monday's eruption, which occurred while 47 people were visiting the island.

New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that citizens from New Zealand, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia had been among those injured and missing following the explosion.

The identities of the five people who lost their lives in the immediate aftermath of the incident remain unknown at this stage.

Speaking in Parliament Tuesday, Ardern said that "bigger questions" around the disaster would have to be answered in the coming weeks.

Emergency services have still not been able to access the island since the eruption. New Zealand's geological hazard information site GeoNet said there was a 50% chance there could be another eruption within 24 hours.

As of Tuesday morning, police said there had been "no signs of life" from the island during several lengthy aerial reconnaissance flights.

New Zealand's burns units are still at full capacity dealing with those injured in the Monday eruption.

Almost everyone who was evacuated from the island after the disaster suffered severe burns to their bodies, Ministry of Health spokesman Pete Watson said Tuesday.

Out of the 31 people still in hospital, 27 had burns to at least 30% of their bodies. The victims were aged between 13 and 72.

Given the extent of their injuries, Watson said that more deaths could be expected in the days ahead. "It's possible that not all patients will survive," he said.

'We had no indication'

The eruption took place on Monday afternoon local time while tourists and tour guides were still touring the volcano, including many visitors from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, the Ovation of the Seas.

Shocking footage from tourists on nearby boats, posted on social media, showed giant plumes of thick black smoke rising from the site.

One US tourist, Matthew Urey, was on White Island with his new wife Lauren when the volcano erupted -- one of nine US citizens who was on the island. He left a voicemail for his mother saying he'd been "badly burned."

"Hi Mum, it's me ... the volcano actually erupted while we were on the island," he said in the voicemail which was given to CNN. "If you don't hear from me, we're fine. But my hands are burned so I can't use my phone. And I don't know how long I'll be here."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 11 Australians were still unaccounted for as of Tuesday morning local time. He added that 13 Australian nationals were receiving treatment in various hospitals in New Zealand following the volcano eruption.

Morrison said that it was possible, but unconfirmed, that three of the five people killed in the eruption are Australian.

Two of those in hospital are UK citizens, according to the British High Commission. Only three people have so far been treated and discharged.

Paul Quinn, chairman of White Island Tours, the company that brings tourists to the volcano island, told CNN that the trips took place within the company's guidelines.

"On the morning (the volcanic activity) was level 2, we had no indication of this event occurring," Quinn said. "There was nothing that signaled there was going to be an eruption."

The danger level is measured on a one-to-five scale, with five being the highest.

When the volcano erupted, two of his tour boats were nearby, Quinn said. One boat had docked, and its passengers were on the island. The other boat had departed the island, but turned back to help people on the island.

Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday morning local time, Prime Minister Ardern paid tribute to the people who tried to help visitors caught up in the eruption. "Those who undertook a risky effort in the immediate aftermath did so in an incredibly courageous way," she said.

Tectonically-volatile region

New Zealand is located in one of the world's most tectonically-volatile regions. Vulcanologists said that while the eruption was relatively small compared to other past disasters, anyone close to the site would have been in serious danger.

Ardern said on Tuesday that ash remained a hazard in the vicinity of the island. A boat coming back from the area was covered in half a meter (around 1.6 feet) of ash.

White Island is New Zealand's most active cone volcano, built up by more than 150,000 years of volcanic activity, according to GeoNet.

Images captured by a crater rim camera operated by GeoNet appeared to showed a group of tourists walking inside the crater just minutes before eruption.

Speaking at a news conference on Monday afternoon, GNS expert Ken Gledhill said that while the volcanic eruption hadn't been that large, it would have been hugely dangerous for anyone nearby.

"(The plume) went up 12,000 (feet) into the sky, and so on the scheme of things for volcanic eruptions, it's not large, but if you were close to that, it's not good," Gledhill said. The scientist added he couldn't predict whether there would be another eruption within 24 hours.

A cone volcano is the most immediately recognizable mountain-shaped variety, as opposed to shield volcanoes or calderas which are flatter in shape.

White Island is also dubbed as "one of the world's most accessible active volcanoes" on the White Island Tours website.

According to GeoNet, more than 10,000 people visit the island every year.

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