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New Zealand volcano: 'No signs of life' on White island, says PM Jacinta Arden

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White Island volcano 3 hours before the eruption.
White Island volcano 3 hours before the eruption.   -   Copyright  Credit: @byminke
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New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinta Arden said on Tuesday that reconnaissance flights showed "no signs of life" on White Island volcano. Police confirmed that they were starting a criminal investigation after the disaster.

The volcano erupted on Monday leaving five dead, eight missing and injuring 31 tourists. Authorities do not expect to find any more survivors.

Ardern said that five new Zealanders as well as 23 visitors from Australia, nine from the US, two from the UK, four from Germany, two from China and one person from Malaysia were among those affected.

CEO of the New Zealand Cruise Association Kevin O’Sullivan confirmed that 30 to 38 of the victims are passengers of the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

"No signs of life have been seen on White Island at any point", she explained, adding that several people were in hospital in a critical condition. Authorities said it is likely that not all of those receiving treatment at the hospital would survive.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted on Tuesday that he spoke "several times" with Arden and that the country should prepare for some difficult news in the days ahead.

Rescue operations paralysed

Emergency services could not continue with the rescue operation due to the high risk of the situation. After the explosion, 23 people were transported to shore and over 27 remained on the island.

The eruption began about 2:11 p.m. local time (01:11 GMT) on White Island, about 50 kilometres from the east coast of North Island, authorities said, sending up smoke visible from the mainland.

Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said on Monday that it was "too dangerous for police and rescue services to go to the island".

Authorities conducted a number of aerial reconnaissance flights and could not find more signs of life after the explosion.

Since then, rescuers have been unable to access the island, which is covered in grey ash. GNS Science, New Zealand's geoscience agency, warned there was a 50/50 chance of another eruption in the coming 24 hours, as the volcano vent continued to emit "steam and mud jetting".

@sch
Picture of the volcano erupting at 14.12@sch

"There were some injuries and the focus is on getting these injured people back safely and to get them to a hospital."

"There seemed to be no danger for people in coastal areas farther away," Arden said on Monday.

Thousands of visitors in an active volcano

'Whakaari', as it is known in the Maori language, is New Zealand's most-active cone volcano, built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years, according to GeoNet.

About 70% of the island is under the sea, making the volcanic structure the largest in New Zealand. Ray Cas, a professor emeritus at Monash University, said the island "has been 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," Cas said in comments published by the Australian Science Media Centre. GeoNet raised the alert level for the volcano in November because of an increase in volcanic activity. The volcano's last fatal eruption was in 1914, when it killed 12 sulphur miners.

There was a short-lived eruption in April 2016. Yet, daily tours bring more than 10,000 visitors to the privately owned island every year.