Search to start Friday for White Island volcano victims

An eruption occurred Monday as 47 tourists were exploring the landscape

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Authorities on Friday will begin trying to recover the bodies of eight victims believed to still be on the small volcanic island off New Zealand after an eruption earlier this week.

Continuing volcanic activity has delayed the retrieval of the bodies on ash-covered White Island, where an eruption occurred Monday as 47 tourists were exploring the landscape. In addition to the bodies left on the island, eight other people were killed and dozens were severely burned by the blast of scalding steam and ash.

New Zealand medical staff were working around the clock to treat the injured survivors in hospital burn units.

The enormity of the task was clear when Dr Peter Watson, a chief medical officer, said that hospital staff anticipated needing an extra 120 square meters of skin to provide grants for burn victims and they had placed orders with American skin banks.

Australian tissue banks have sent 20,000 square centimetres to New Zealand to help the survivors. “Skin is predominantly used in patients who have the most life-threatening burns, usually if they have more than 50 percent burn over their body,” said Stefan Paniatowski, head of Donor Tissue Bank Victoria.

A patient with that amount of burned skin doesn’t have enough of their own healthy skin to transplant onto the wounded area, he explained. Additionally, in patients with an infection, creating a new wound to transfer their own skin is too risky, Mr Paniatowski said.

White Island is the tip of a mostly undersea volcano that’s about 50 kilometres off New Zealand’s North Island and has been a popular attraction visited by thousands of tourists each year.

Authorities say 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian were visiting the island at the time of the eruption. Many were from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that had left Sydney two days earlier.

The Pacific Ring of Fire. The National 
The Pacific Ring of Fire. The National 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 10 Australians were presumed among the dead. Twelve of the injured Australians were being medically evacuated to Australian hospitals for further treatment with one Australian patient staying in a New Zealand hospital, he said at a news conference Thursday.

New Zealand’s GeoNet seismic monitoring agency on Thursday lowered White Island’s volcanic alert level to 2, noting there’s been no further eruption since Monday, when the level had briefly been raised to 4. Its alert level since late Monday had been 3 on a scale where 5 signifies a major eruption.

A further eruption in the next day still remains a possibility, the agency said, noting volcanic tremors are rising and steam and mud were being vented regularly.