New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed “unfathomable grief” on Tuesday after a volcanic eruption at a popular tourist island, as the police announced that it is launching a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the deadly incident.
Ardern confirmed five fatalities and said eight people were still missing after Monday’s eruption at Whakaari, also known as White Island.
There was little hope of finding the missing alive, after overnight aerial reconnaissance flights found no signs of life. Police also said that the bodies left on the island are covered in ash.
“The focus this morning is on recovery and ensuring police can do that safely,” Ardern told a news conference.
Reuters and AFP news agencies confirmed on Tuesday afternoon that a criminal investigation is being launched by police to look into the incident, and why the tourists were allowed despite an earlier warning about volcanic activities.
Among those on the island during the cataclysm were tourists from Australia, the United States, the UK, China and Malaysia, as well as their New Zealand guides.
“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief and in your sorrow,” Ardern said.
“Your loved ones stood alongside Kiwis who were hosting you here and we grieve with you.”
Ardern singled out “our Australian family” for sympathy, while her Australian counterpart Scott Morrison said there were fears that three of the five dead were Australian.
“This is a very, very hard day for a lot of Australian families whose loved ones have been caught up in this terrible, terrible tragedy,” he told reporters in Sydney.
A total of 31 people – including 13 Australians – were in hospital with various injuries, some listed as critical with serious burns.
Of those those who were injured, police said on Tuesday that 27 of them suffered greater than 71 percent body surface burns.
White Island Tours, a trip operator, confirmed that two of its guides were unaccounted for, while the UK’s high commissioner in Wellington said two female citizens were in hospital.
Concerns about further eruptions, poisonous gases and choking ash prevented efforts to recover bodies.