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New Zealand police open criminal probe into volcano deaths

Updated: 2019-12-10 14:13
A person takes photos of volcanic eruption at New Zealand's White Island, on Dec 9, 2019. [Photo/Xinhua]

WHAKATANE, New Zealand — New Zealand police said Tuesday they were opening a criminal investigation into the deaths of tourists on a volcanic island where a powerful eruption of ash and scalding steam occurred as dozens of people were exploring the barren landscape.

Five deaths were confirmed after Monday's eruption of the White Island volcano. Eight other people are feared dead, but unstable conditions on the island were continuing to hinder a search.

Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims did not go into details of the criminal investigation but said it would sit alongside an investigation by health and safety regulators. The announcement indicates authorities are concerned safety standards may have been breached.

Many people are questioning why tourists were still allowed on the island after seismic monitoring experts raised the volcano's alert level last month.

"These questions must be asked and they must be answered," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in Parliament.

About 47 people were on the island at the time of the eruption, and some of those evacuated suffered critical burns.

"To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your grief and sorrow, and we are devastated," Ardern said.

Experts said they thought there was still a 50-percent chance of another small eruption taking place within the next day, making it too dangerous for search teams to return to the island. Ardern said aircraft have not seen survivors, and Tims said attempts to send up drones were prevented by windy conditions.

The eruption about 2 pm Monday sent a plume of steam and ash an estimated 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) into the air. Helicopter crews landed afterward despite the danger and evacuated many survivors. One of the rescue boats that returned from the island was covered with ash half a meter (yard) thick, Ardern said.

A few locals laid flowers Tuesday at a fence on the waterfront near where the rescue boats had returned with the injured, many of whom were flown to burn units at hospitals around New Zealand.

White Island, also known by the indigenous Maori name Whakaari, is the tip of an undersea volcano some 30 miles (50 kilometers) off New Zealand's main North Island.

New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency had raised the volcano's alert level on Nov 18 from 1 to 2 on a scale where 5 represents a major eruption, noting an increase in sulfur dioxide gas, which originates from magma. It also said volcanic tremors had increased from weak to moderate strength. It raised the alert level to 4 for a time after Monday's eruption but lowered it to 3 as the activity subsided.

AP

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