25 still in critical condition, further eruptions 'likely'

Amid fears not all eruption victims being treated around the country will survive police have confirmed 25 of 30 patients remain in a critical condition.

This comes as police and other agencies continue to plan an operation to recover the victims still on the island and carry out the complex process of identifying the six people confirmed dead following the Monday afternoon eruption which sent an ash plume 3700m into the air and could be seen from 50km away.

Those efforts to get to White Island to recover the victims have been dealt a blow after GNS Science gave an update saying volcanic tremor had "significantly increased" on the island and a further eruption was "likely".

Family and friends mourn the death and serious injuries of those caught in the eruption. Photo: Getty Images
Family and friends mourn the death and serious injuries of those caught in the eruption. Photo: Getty Images
In a statement this morning police said there were 30 patients in six hospitals around New Zealand — Middlemore, Hutt Valley, Auckland City, Tauranga, Waikato and Christchurch.

Twenty five patients are critical with the remainder stable but serious.

Ministry of Health spokesman Pete Watson said 27 of the injured people taken off the island had burns to more than 30 percent of their body and many had inhalation burns requiring airways support.

He said most were in four regional burns units around the country and the rest would be transferred to burns units as soon as possible.

Middlemore Hospital's burns unit has received the equivalent of a year's worth of work in one day since the eruption.

All burns units are now at capacity and some patients well enough to travel will likely be transferred to Australian hospitals where they can be closer to family.

Further eruptions likely

GNS volcanologist Craig Miller said this morning volcanic tremor had "significantly increased" at White Island indicating that volcanic gas pressures remained high.

"Since around 4.00 am this morning the level of volcanic tremor has significantly increased at the island.

"This has been accompanied by vigorous steaming and localised mud jetting in several of the craters created by the eruption on Monday. We interpret these signals as evidence of continued high gas pressures within the volcano."

The Volcanic Alert Level remained at Level 3 and eruptions in the next 24 hours were still likely.

"The situation remains highly uncertain as to future activity."

Results from a gas flight conducted Tuesday afternoon were still being analysed, which would give GNS more understanding of the processes driving the volcanic activity. 

There was an extremely low likelihood of any potential ash affecting the mainland, but people could smell gas, depending on the prevailing wind direction.

Recovery operation

A recovery operation cannot begin until it is deemed safe enough for the recovery team.

Acting Assistant Commissioner Bruce Bird said this morning police were still working to try and figure out how the environment is now on the island - and whether it was safe for authorities to get there to retrieve the bodies of those still there.

"We're working up the plan on how we will actually go about and do that," he said.

In a statement police said it was "important to note that the environment on the island has changed since the eruption".

It was the role of GNS to provide police with advice as to the safety of deploying onto the island.

A meeting with scientists would take place later this morning and further clarity is expected at that time.

That information will be further informed by surveillance from a drone, which was successfully launched about 8.30am today.

Patients at hospitals around New Zealand

Of the injured in hospital last night, 24 were in burn units in Christchurch, Hutt Valley, Waikato and Middlemore, Ministry of Health spokesman Pete Watson said.

Six patients transferred to Tauranga and Auckland would be sent on to the regional burn units as soon as there was room, he said.

Twenty-seven people suffered burns to more than 30% of their bodies. Many suffered inhalation burns. Only a few of the patients were not in a critical condition, Mr Watson said.

Middlemore’s burn unit received the equivalent of a year’s work in one day. All burn units were at capacity and some patients who were well enough to travel would likely be transferred to Australian hospitals to be closer to family.

Mr Watson reiterated the seriousness of the injuries and the number of those injured.

‘‘It is possible that not all of the patients will survive. But at this stage everybody is receiving the care that they require,’’ he said.

Experts say many of the victims may have been knocked out almost instantly by toxic gases.

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Police yesterday confirmed tourists from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Malaysia and New Zealand were among the injured or missing.

Most of the people visiting the island were from Ovation of the Seas cruise ship. It was due to set sail for Dunedin but remained in Tauranga last night.

Police deputy commissioner John Tims said police were trying to return bodies to grieving families but the nature of their injuries made identifying the victims a complex process.

‘‘The nature of the injuries that people have suffered is severe and means identifying them is a complex matter.

‘‘We are working through the process to identify them as quickly as possible, to return those who have died to their loved ones.’’

It is understood part of that process will include police gathering DNA from the cabins of missing passengers on Ovation of the Seas.

Mr Tims said that the police understood ‘‘people’s desire to recover their loved ones and we are working around the clock to get on to the island so we can recover them as soon as possible’’.

‘‘Based on the effects of the eruption on the bodies, this recovery will need to be handled with expert skill and care,’’ he said.

The crew of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter shelters from the dust kicked up by their chopper during the initial rescue mission on White Island on Monday. Photo: Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust
The crew of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter shelters from the dust kicked up by their chopper during the initial rescue mission on White Island on Monday. Photo: Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust

An investigation into the circumstances of the deaths and injuries was under way.

Its terms of reference will be developed soon, Mr Tims said.

It will be carried out on behalf of the coroner and in parallel with a WorkSafe New Zealand investigation.

However, questions remain about whether a separate criminal investigation will be launched, after police said in a statement it was too early to make that call.

Experts have warned there is a 50% chance of another eruption within 24 hours, something that will be factored into any decision on when police can retrieve the dead.

Mr Tims said a boat had been sent to the island yesterday to try to launch a drone to help analyse the island’s gasses, to help determine if the island was safe to enter. It was too windy and there will be a second attempt if conditions improved.

Questions were already being raised as to why tourists were allowed on the active volcanic island. The company that owns the tour firm said the alert level was within its guidelines.

White Island Tours is owned by Ngati Awa Holdings and its chairman, Paul Quinn, said the heightened alert levels on the volcano over the past few weeks did not meet its threshold for stopping operations.

Earlier, a Ngati Awa leader confirmed a rahui had been placed on the island.

The injuries people sustained while visiting White Island have been described as ‘‘pretty horrendous’’ by a first responder.

The helicopter that was destroyed by the Whakaari/White Island volcanic eruption. Photo: Instagram
The helicopter that was destroyed by the Whakaari/White Island volcanic eruption. Photo: Instagram

Whakatane Volunteer Fire Brigade Chief Fire Officer Ken Clark said despite sustaining severe burn injuries, the victims had to endure a lengthy journey back to the mainland.

‘‘It’s an hour plus from there to the wharf, so these people were sitting on the decks with problems and had to sit there for the whole duration of the trip,’’ he said.

‘‘That wouldn’t have been comfortable at all.

‘‘You’ve got to feel very sorry for those people.

‘‘It was a matter of getting them off the boat as soon as possible because of the injuries that had occurred.

‘‘There were some pretty horrendous type things.’’

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern flew to the Bay of Plenty on Monday night and yesterday viewed police and civil defence operations and met first responders.

-Story additionally reported by RNZ

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