Dec. 10 (UPI) — New Zealand Police said Tuesday it has launched a criminal investigation into the deaths of five tourists caused by Monday’s volcanic eruption on White Island.
During a press conference, New Zealand Deputy Commissioner John Tims said the conditions and scope of the investigation would be announced later.
He confirmed that 47 people were on or near the island Monday when the volcano erupted at 2:11 p.m., resulting in five deaths and 31 people injured.
Eight people are still missing and presumed dead, he said.
“We absolutely believe that everyone that could have been taken from the island yesterday were rescued at the time of the evacuation,” he said. “A number of flights were carried out throughout the day and no signs of life were seen.”
Of those involved, police confirmed that 37 had been passengers and one had been a crew member of the Royal Caribbean International’s Ovation of the Seas cruise ship.
The nationalities of those who were near the volcano when it erupted consist of 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Chinese, two Britons and one Malaysian, he said, adding that until the identification process is completed, “I cannot break down those numbers any further.”
U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand Scott Brown in a statement confirmed that Americans are among “those injured and missing” but could not provide more specific information “out of consideration for those involved, as well as privacy concerns.”
Pete Watson, Ministry of Health spokesman, said of the 31 people injured, 27 suffered from greater than 30 percent total body surface burns and many of them have inhalation burns that require airway support. The injured range in age from 13 to 72, he said.
“It’s possible not all of the patients will survive,” he said.
All burn wards were at capacity, he said, and some patients may be transferred to Australia.
The police are still working to access the island and are in the process of determining its conditions, Tims said, adding, “We are doing everything we can to get back to the island.”
However, experts forecast that there is a 50 percent chance of another similar eruption in the next 24 hours.
“There is a high level of uncertainty associated with this estimate and we are working to reduce that uncertainty,” GeoNet Duty Volcanologist Geoff Kilgour said in a statement.
Known locally as Whakaari Island, the privately owned White Island is home to the most active cone volcano in the nation and is visited by more than 10,000 people per year, according to GeoNet.