Aussie cruise fury as DNA probe begins
Formal identification and autopsies for the six victims of the White Island volcano will begin today as police try to identify the dead and injured.
Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims told the New Zealand Herald that authorities were trying to return bodies to devastated families but the identification process was complex.
"The nature of the injuries that people have suffered is severe and means identifying them is a complex matter," he said.
"We are working through the process to identify them as quickly as possible, to return those who have died to their loved ones."
The mayor of Whakatāne said families were "desperate" to bring those still on the volcano home, calling the wait "horrendous".
"From what I understand, they're taking a team of experts out to do this work. [The families are] just desperate to get their loved ones back, it's horrendous," Mayor Judy Turner said.
Meanwhile, the ship at the centre of the tragedy, the Ovation of the Seas, left Tauranga shortly before 7am (5.30am AEDT) the rest of its shortened cruise of New Zealand.
It comes as despair over the tragedy quickly turned to anger as families of victims and safety experts ask why they were allowed to go there.
The death toll has risen to six people, after one tourist succumbed to injuries in Auckland's Middlemore Hospital, while the eight people missing are now presumed dead and some of the 30 in hospital continue to fight for their lives.
There were now 14 injured Australians being treated in New Zealand, with authorities saying some would return home for burns treatment.
Of the 47 people on or near the island, also known as Whakaari, 24 were Australians aged between 13 to 72.
New Zealand Police walked back an announcement that they had launched a criminal investigation into the incident, saying it was simply an investigation.
A report published by the Royal Geographical Society warned of the dangers of "volcano tourism".
Volcano experts had upgraded the danger warning weeks before the White Island volcano erupted spewing boiling gas and ash 12,000 metres into the air as tourists walked on the floor of the crater.
"I'm just livid," mother Barbara Barham said after receiving a call from her daughter Lauren Urey telling her she and newlywed husband Matthew had been rescued with burns.
"There's been warnings about it … my son-in-law never would have booked the excursion if he knew there was any chance of them being injured," she said.
Twenty-four-year-old Ovation of the Seas passenger Venessa Lugo, from Newcastle, said information about the White Island day tour was provided before the cruise, in printed sheets on board, and through a Royal Caribbean app that cruisers were encouraged to download.
"In those sheets we weren't advised of any warnings of anything going off," she said.
"It did ask about pre-existing medical conditions, and it was classified as strenuous activity because you would be in a gas mask, but it definitely didn't specify the possibility of (the volcano) going off."
Screen shots from the section of the Royal Caribbean app spruiking the tour reveal that passengers were urged to consider their physical fitness before choosing the expedition, and were told it was not appropriate for people with limited mobility.
Asked whether passengers were informed that White Island's hazard level had been raised from level one to level two, Ms Lugo said no.
"None of that information was sent through to us," she said.
Royal Caribbean International were unable to comment after being contacted by News Corp about the claims.
Geological hazard information agency GeoNet (GNS) had issued multiple warnings of "volcanic unrest" as far back as late October.
"Moderate volcanic unrest continues at Whakaari/White Island, with substantial gas, steam and mud bursts observed at the vent located at the back of the crater lake," it reported last Tuesday.
It was the agency's crater cameras that captured the tourists, wearing just plastic yellow hard hats, walking across the base of the volcano moments before it instantaneously erupted.
White Island Tours' chairman Paul Quinn told reporters that the major safety consideration was given to the weather.
"In the normal course of events, we'd actually make that call [not to travel] the night before, and that principally and invariably is around the weather," Mr Quinn said.
He said the company, which has exclusive access to the privately owned island, said the "steer" on volcanic activity came from GNS.
"They send us reports as to what the activity levels are and if in fact it is deemed safe - which is a level two which it was yesterday - the next step is the weather and then we make our choices from there."
He said level two was considered a safe degree to operate. Immediately after the eruption the danger level was increased to four.
It was also revealed that the island had been installed with a blast shelter three years ago. But it was unclear if any of the tourists had managed to seek shelter in the former shipping container.
The Whakaari Trust, which owns the island and is managed by Whakaari Management Limited, have released a statement following the tragedy and said they offer their "heartfelt sympathies" to those "affected by the eruption".
Speaking from Whakatāne, Trust spokesman Peter Buttle says his family, which includes his two brothers Andrew and James, have owned the island for over 80 years and are devastated by the tragic event.
"We are all shocked by what has occurred on Whakaari yesterday and our thoughts are with everyone affected by this tragedy," said Mr Buttle.
"We wish to thank everyone involved in the rescue effort, including the first responders, medical personnel and the locals who helped evacuate people from the island. Their efforts have been both courageous and extraordinary."
But Emeritus Professor Ray Cas from the School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment at Monash University said White Island was "a disaster waiting to happen for many years".
"Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter," he said.
University of Sydney geophysics professor Dietmar Muller also questioned why people were walking through the volcano at all after visiting it with his geologist wife last year.
"When we visited, we were all told that walking into the crater was off limits, so I am unsure why people were allowed to enter the crater recently, especially given that there were some warning signs," he said.
"Even though eruptions are difficult to predict, on 3 December GeoNet reported that 'unrest' at White Island had occurred for a week. Explosive gas-and-steam-driven fountains were observed and mud and debris were ejected 20-30 m above the vent.
"Therefore it looks like there were precursors, but they were clearly not interpreted as a certain sign of a looming eruption, likely because this sort of activity on White Island is not uncommon," Prof Muller said.
FEARS FOR MISSING AUSTRALIANS
A family of four from Sydney, a mother and daughter from Brisbane and an Adelaide family - these are who Prime Minister Scott Morrison was talking about when he warned the nation to be prepared for more bad news.
They are among a long list of the missing and maybe dead being held by Red Cross with their desperate families unable to locate or make contact with them.
Officially the New Zealand Government said there were eight missing presumed dead on White Island, whose suspected graves have been tentatively marked but their bodies currently remain unrecoverable.
But Australia's list of the missing runs to double that, the anomaly just an example of the confusion and complexity of the investigation being co-ordinated out of a cafeteria in the Whakatane regional council chambers.
List of other nationalities including from Mexico, Malaysia and China are also there and just where all these people are remains unclear.
Relatives of the Langford family have confirmed they haven't heard anything from father Anthony, wife Kristine and children Jesse, 19, and 17-year-old Winona since the eruption.
In Adelaide, the family of lawyer Gavin Dallow, 53, his partner Lisa Hosking, 48, and 15-year-old daughter Zoe Hosking asked to keep them in your prayers.
Mr Dallow's family confirmed the trio set off on a day trip to White Island on Monday but had not heard from them since.
Lisa Hosking has since been accounted for and is critically ill in hospital.
Brisbane mother and daughter Julie and Jessica Richards, aged 47 and 20 respectively, were listed as missing by Jessica's father, Tony Richards.
Then there is Richard Aaron Elzer, 32, and Karla Michelle Mathews, 32, of Coffs Harbour NSW, who have been listed as missing.
To check the list of names, click here.
VICTIMS FLOWN TO AUSTRALIA
The Ministry of Health has revealed New Zealand's burns units are at capacity, with some survivors of the Whakaari volcano disaster being flown to Australia.
Spokesman Pete Watson said it was possible not all of the 31 people suffering horrific injuries - burns and lung damage from ash and gas - would survive.
"Of those injured, 27 of the 31 have suffered greater than 30 per cent total body surface area burns … and many have inhalation burns that require airways support," he said.
TOUR GUIDE NAMED AS DECEASED
Hayden Marshall-Inman's brother wrote that the local tour guide had died "doing the one thing he loved."
Mark Inman's social media post was flooded with tributes, well-wishes and memories of Marshall-Inman, who has been celebrated as "a top man who left an impact on the world."
"Tom Storey and Mark Law, they flew out on their own accord - and thank god they did. They pulled some people back that may not have survived. Heroes," Mr Inman said.
"They found my brother lying down, they lifted him up and moved him to a safe spot and carried on saving the ones that needed saving. They did a fantastic job. Unsung heroes."
Unfortunately, Hayden wasn't one of the survivors. His body now lies on a rise beside a stream.
Marshall-Inman was a guide for Whakatane-based White Island Tours and was leading a tour group on a seven-hour day trip from a cruise ship to the volcano when it erupted.
A local supermarket worker described Marshall-Inman's generous spirit.
"Whenever he came in and made a purchase, he always gave us $NZ5 to pay towards the next person's groceries," Julie Lockett said. "He had the kindest heart, it was never about him; he definitely created a ripple effect of happiness to others," she added.
POLICE LAUNCH INVESTIGATION
New Zealand police have launched an investigation into the tragedy of the White Island eruption with 47 tourists taken to the New Zealand North Island atoll despite warnings just two weeks ago of fresh volatility and danger.
"I can confirm now that we will commence a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the death and injuries on White Island," deputy police commissioner John Tims said.
Two hours later police backed down on saying it was just an investigation on behalf of the coroner.
Mr Tims declined to specify the subject of the investigation or what charges could be laid, saying only that the terms of reference were still being developed.
But the investigation would run parallel to a probe conducted by the workplace watchdog Work Safety New Zealand.
Such was the horrific injuries of the dead and wounded, eight hospitals were operating to capacity with burns specialists and witnesses likening injuries to those severe blisterings from toxic gas and ash as akin to Chernobyl.
The news came as police confirmed an aerial drone and land-based search had failed to find any sign of life on the still smouldering volcano and a recovery mission of bodies would only take place if and when it was ever deemed safe.
Travel operator White Island Tours, which took cruise passengers and others to the volcano island, said it took safety responsibilities extremely seriously.
Operator chairman Paul Quinn agreed it was known it was at Level 2, "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest".
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern singled out "our Australian family" for sympathy.
"The scale of this tragedy is devastating," she told parliament. "To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your grief and sorrow and we are devastated."
Of the police probe she added: "We know, too, there will be bigger questions in relation to this event. These questions must be asked and they must be answered."
The New Zealand Government's chief medical officer Peter Watson said all had to be prepared for the death toll to rise with at least 27 of the injured suffering greater than 71 per cent body surface burns and others inhalation airways burns.
He said some of the Australian patients who are well enough to travel would likely be transferred to Australian hospitals where they can be closer to family.
Since the Monday 2pm eruption on White Island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, rescuers have been unable to access the island with GNS Science, New Zealand's geoscience agency, warning there was now a 50/50 chance of another eruption in the coming 24 hours, as the volcano vent continued to emit "steam and mud jetting".
Russell Clark, an intensive care paramedic worker, said the scene looked like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, "just blanketed in ash".
"It was quite an overwhelming feeling. There was a helicopter on the island that had obviously been there at the time, with its rotor blades off it," Mr Clark said.
"I can only imagine what it was like for the people there at the time - they had nowhere to go."
New Zealand was also hit with a 'strong' 5.3-magnitude earthquake.
The shake occurred off the east coast, near Wairoa and Whakatane, close to where the eruption happened.
However, GeoNet says the earthquake is unrelated to the eruption on White Island.