New Zealand observes silence as more volcano dead named

Wellington (AFP) –


New Zealand paused for a minute's silence Monday to mark one week since the devastating White Island eruption in which 16 international tourists and two local guides are now known to have died when the volcano exploded as they trekked near its crater.

At 2:11pm (0111 GMT) -- precisely a week since the eruption -- offices and shops fell silent as New Zealanders remembered those killed by the blast, with at least 17 more receiving intensive treatment for severe burns.

Flags flew at half-mast outside Wellington's distinctive "Beehive" parliament building, while inside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern suspended a cabinet meeting and stood head bowed to quietly reflect on the disaster.

Announcing the gesture on Saturday, Ardern said: "Wherever you are in New Zealand, or around the world, this is a moment we can stand alongside those who have lost loved ones in this extraordinary tragedy."

Many of those affected were Australian and Ardern's counterpart in Canberra, Scott Morrison, said his compatriots were also honouring the dead, injured and their loved ones.

Whakatane mayor Judy Turner said authorities took grieving families out on boats to within a safe distance of the volcanic island to mark the event.

But there was only brief respite from the grim tasks of identifying the dead and nursing the injured, with police on Monday morning releasing the names of another four fatalities.

All four were Australian -- Jessica Richards, 20, Jason David Griffiths, 33, Martin Berend Hollander, 48, and Kristine Elizabeth Langford, 45.

It brings the number of Australians identified as fatalities in the eruption to eight, along with two US citizens who had permanent residency in Australia.

- 'Days or weeks' -

The only other person identified so far is New Zealander Tipene James Te Rangi Ataahua Maangi, 24, who was working as a tour guide on the volcano last Monday when it blasted out a huge plume of ash, rock and superheated steam.

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

Special forces troops retrieved six bodies from the island last Friday but the remains of two people have still not been found, despite a second land search on Sunday.

Police commissioner Mike Bush said the two bodies were believed to be in the water off White Island.

"We've been working with all the experts, including the harbour-master who knows those waters better than anyone, to try to predict where those persons might be," Bush told RNZ.

He said a helicopter was scouring the waters of the Bay of Plenty on Monday, with searches by police and navy divers to resume on Tuesday.

"We will continue the operation for as long as we have a chance of recovering those bodies," he said, adding in a separate interview to Auckland radio station Magic "it can take days and weeks".

Bush was confident all the dead currently being examined by forensic specialists would eventually be identified and their bodies returned to grieving families.

"That's progressing really well. It's just so important that we get it right and also that we do it as quickly as possible," he said.

Many of those affected were passengers on the cruise liner Ovation of the Seas, which berthed in Sydney early Monday.

"The crew were really good and trying to stay upbeat but you could tell they were hurting. I think the captain was breaking down crying a fair bit."