'Terrible time' as New Zealand volcano toll climbs

Whakatane (New Zealand) (AFP) –


The official death toll from New Zealand's White Island volcano disaster rose to eight Thursday, as fears of another eruption continued to frustrate efforts to recover bodies from the smouldering island.

Police said two people died in hospital overnight, taking the confirmed number of fatalities to eight, with a further nine people missing and presumed dead.

Many more victims of Monday's explosion are battling to survive after suffering horrific burns at the popular tourist attraction, which police said was still too dangerous to land on.

"Police remain focused on supporting families at this terrible time," they said in a statement.

Health officials said Wednesday that 22 critically injured survivors who needed assistance breathing were in hospital burns units.

It was not immediately clear if this figure included the two most recent fatalities, who died at hospitals in Auckland and Hamilton.

Police did not release further details about the dead.

The survivors' injuries are so severe that an extra 1.2 million square centimetres (1,300 square feet) of skin for grafts is being sent from Australia and the United States.

A total of 47 day-trippers and guides were on the island when the blast occurred, hailing from Australia, the United States, Britain, China, Germany, Malaysia and New Zealand.

The bodies of the missing are thought to be on the island and recovery teams are on standby at nearby Whakatane but have so far been unable to deploy.

"Every day that passes with those bodies unrecovered is a day of anguish for their loved ones... but right now, the science tells us that the risk is just too high," Civil Defence emergency director Sarah Stuart-Black said.

Seismologists have predicted there is a 40 to 60 percent chance of another eruption on the island, which sits semi-submerged 50 kilometres (30 miles) out to sea.

Poisonous gases are still billowing from the volcanic vent and the island is blanketed in a thick layer of acidic ash.

"It would be madness for us to send men and women across to White Island in a situation that was not safe," Police Minister Stuart Nash said.

- Investigation underway -

Rainfall early Thursday added another complication that could delay the recovery operation.

Seven of the nine people so far identified and named as missing by New Zealand police are from Australia.

An eighth Australian victim who died in hospital was named by authorities there late Wednesday.

Canberra has sent three military aircraft with specialist medical crews to repatriate some of the survivors.

One Malaysian has been confirmed dead and another was critically injured, while British officials said two of their citizens were injured.

The US embassy said nine Americans were on the island and some were seriously injured.

A coronial process has begun to identify the eight confirmed dead but police said it "can take some time".

When the volcano exploded it is believed to have sent superheated steam, ash and cannonball-like rocks hurtling from the caldera at supersonic speed.

The island in the picturesque Bay of Plenty attracts more than 17,000 visitors every year and is marketed as an experience for the adventurous traveller.

But the threat alert level was raised in the week before the eruption, prompting questions about whether tour groups should have been allowed to visit.

Families of Australian victims expressed doubt that their loved ones were made aware of the risks of visiting the island.

"So I'm pretty sure they weren't fully informed of the dangers, otherwise he would haven't gone. I'm quite sure of that. That's the only thing I can be really positive about."