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Conditions on New Zealand volcano make recovery of bodies impossible for now

Experts said geothermal activity on a New Zealand volcanic island increased significantly on Wednesday, dealing a blow to relatives waiting for crews to recover the bodies that remain there following a deadly eruption two days earlier.

Tour guide among 6 confirmed dead after White Island eruption

The volcano on New Zealand's White Island erupted on Monday, and the chance of another eruption is currently too great to risk recovering the bodies, officials say. (Lillani Hopkins via The Associated Press)

Experts said geothermal activity on a New Zealand volcanic island increased significantly on Wednesday, dealing a blow to relatives waiting for crews to recover the bodies that remain there following a deadly eruption two days earlier.

Volcanic tremors rose Wednesday morning, accompanied by an increase in the amount of steam and mud being released at White Island, the GeoNet seismic monitoring agency said.

"We interpret these signals as evidence of continued high gas pressures within the volcano," the agency said. "The situation remains highly uncertain as to future activity. Eruptions in the next 24 hours are still likely to occur."

Six deaths were confirmed after Monday's eruption of the White Island volcano. Five people died at the time of the blast or soon after, while a sixth person died Tuesday night at an Auckland hospital.

Another eight people are believed to have died, with their bodies remaining on the ash-covered island for now.

Survivors of the eruption ran into the sea to escape the scalding steam and ash and emerged covered in burns, the people who first helped them say.

Experts said earlier there was a 50 per cent chance of another small eruption within a day, and rescue teams didn't want to take any chances. 

A man places a bouquet on a waterfront fence in Whakatane, New Zealand, on Tuesday. (Mark Baker/The Associated Press)

Bruce Bird, an acting assistant police commissioner, said they were monitoring the situation hour by hour.

"Safety for our staff is a huge priority for us," Bird said. "And we've got to get this right."

Bird said they had deployed a drone over the island to measure gas levels after strong winds had thwarted those attempts on Tuesday.

But helicopter pilot Mark Law said the delay was hard to understand and that if he was making the decision, he would leave immediately.

"It would take 20 minutes to get out there. We know where they are," he said, referring to the bodies. "Then we could bring them home."

Unstable conditions hampered search and rescue workers after the eruption. (Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Tour guide among the dead 

Geoff Hopkins was in a boat offshore after visiting the island with his daughter, a tour for his 50th birthday. He told the New Zealand Herald the eruption at first looked beautiful, but quickly turned menacing.

As injured people were transported onto their boat screaming in pain, Hopkins and his daughter Lillani poured fresh water on them, cut them out of their clothes and tried to keep them calm.

He told the Herald they were "horrifically" burned on their exposed skin and faces, even under their clothes.

About 30 of the survivors remained hospitalized on Tuesday, many flown to burn units around the country. The first confirmed death was of a local man, Hayden Marshall-Inman, a guide who had shown tourists around the island.

Former Whakatane mayor Tony Bonne said Marshall-Inman was a keen fisherman and well liked. He was so kind, Bonne said, that he would often leave extra money at the grocery store for those he knew were struggling to pay.

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."

Many people were left questioning why tourists were still allowed to visit the island after seismic monitoring experts raised the volcano's alert level last month.

"These questions must be asked and they must be answered," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in Parliament.

WATCH: Rescuers circle volcanic island Tuesday 

A rescue helicopter is helping in the search for survivors of the volcanic eruption on New Zealand's White Island. 0:49

New Zealand deputy police commissioner John Tims said Tuesday that police were opening a criminal investigation that would accompany an investigation by health and safety regulators. 

But hours later, police put out a statement saying while they were investigating the deaths on behalf of the coroner, "To correct an earlier statement, it is too early to confirm whether there will also be a criminal investigation."

Police said that of the people on the island, there were:

  • 24 from Australia.
  • 2 from China.
  • 4 from Germany.
  • 1 from Malaysia.
  • 5 from New Zealand.
  • 2 from the U.K.
  • 9 from the U.S. 

Police are still working with the coroner and others, and have not yet offered specifics on the dead.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 11 Australians were unaccounted for and 13 were hospitalized. Three Australians were suspected to be among the initial five confirmed dead, he told reporters in Sydney. "I fear there is worse news to come."

Relatives of a newlywed American couple say the husband and wife were severely burned. Barbara Barham told the Washington Post her daughter Lauren Urey, 32, and son-in-law Matthew Urey, 36, from Richmond, Va., were on a honeymoon trip.

A few locals laid flowers Tuesday at a fence on the waterfront near where the rescue boats had returned with the injured.

White Island, also known by the Indigenous Maori name Whakaari, is the tip of an undersea volcano off New Zealand's main North Island.

New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency had raised the volcano's alert level on Nov. 18 from 1 to 2 on a scale, where 5 represents a major eruption, noting an increase in sulfur dioxide gas, which originates from magma. It also said volcanic tremors had increased from weak to moderate strength. It raised the alert level to 4 for a time after Monday's eruption but lowered it to 3 as the activity subsided.

'Terrible place to be'

Richard Arculus, an Australian National University volcanologist who has made numerous visits to White Island, said the eruption likely sent a ground-hugging lateral blast from the crater to the jetty, as well as blasting rock and ash vertically skyward.

"In that crater, it would have been a terrible place to be," Arculus said. "There would have been nowhere safe for you to be hiding, thinking that, `Oh well, if it explodes, it just goes straight up in the air."'

At least 10 people were killed on the island in 1914 when it was being mined for sulfur. Part of a crater wall collapsed and a landslide destroyed the miners' village and the mine itself.

Tour guides remove tourists on a boat soon after the volcano erupted. (@SCH/Reuters)

The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and more than 10,000 people visit on daily tours every year.

"Tourism has been a growing market, and White Island has been an anchor for that," Bonne said. "It's something unique that pulls people from all around the world."

See the huge plume of ash and steam after a New Zealand volcanic island erupts 0:59

The tragedy will have an ongoing effect on the town of Whakatane, which road signs tout as the gateway to White Island. As well as being an important tourist draw for the 20,000 people who live here, the volcano has an almost mystical significance, its regular puffing a feature of the landscape.

It's uncertain if the island will ever host tourists again.

WATCH: See earlier statement from New Zealand PM on eruption

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern outlines the nationalities of those killed when a volcano erupted off the country's White Island and updates on next steps. 1:03
 

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