The death toll continues to rise as the tragic White Island eruption in New Zealand leaves 6 people dead. Some other 25 survivors are still in critical condition and 8 remain missing. They were just families on vacation and couples in their honeymoon, but now their lives are forever changed for not so good reason.

It all started on Monday afternoon, December 9. What should have been a great experience suddenly became a disaster when the country’s most active volcano “unexpectedly” erupted. Reports say that there were around 50 people in the area, including cruise passengers, during the eruption. Twenty-five of them were able to escape safely while others were left either dead or with serious burns. Most of the victims, age 13 to 72, have suffered extensive burns to their bodies and lungs due to gas inhalation.

As of writing, all six burn units of New Zealand are in full capacity caring for the survivors. Authorities are still working to gather information on the extent of damages that the eruption has incurred. This includes the total number of dead and injured people.

Tourism in White Island

An Island with a crater.
Photo by Eisi02q on Pixabay

White Island is a private island on the east coast of the North Island of New Zealand. It is a stratovolcano built up by continuous volcanic activity over the past 150,000 years. Also known as Whakaari, it is a famous tourist destination and often part of cruise ships itinerary in the country.

Whakaari Trust privately owns the volcanic island. To enter the vicinity, visitors need to get permission from the private owners through accredited tour operators. Over 10,000 people visit the volcano every year but with the recent incident, that can drop to the lowest in no time.

White Island Unexpected Eruption

Although Whakaari is the most active volcano in New Zealand, its latest devastating eruption is already 100 years ago.  State scientists were insistently saying that there was no indication that White Island is going to erupt. This is despite the volcanic activities in the past week. Before the incident, the state volcanic monitoring service of New Zealand raised the alert level on White Island to level 2.

A graph showing the volcanic tremor over the last month in White Island.
Photo by GNS Science

On Monday, the day of the eruption,  an accredited tour provider has taken foreign tourists to the island. Although no regulation strictly prohibits visiting the island when it’s under alert level 2, some critics say that the deaths could have been prevented. Some also question whether tourists should have been there at all.

As early as October, GNS Science has already warned about the likelihood of an eruption outside the vent area of Whakaari. At that time, White Island was only under alert level 1 with an estimated 0.1 – 0.2% chance of an eruption. But the problem is volcanoes like White Island can erupt even if they are at level 1. That’s why extra precautions should have been applied.

In a press statement, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said that an investigation regarding the White Island incident is already underway. “Questions must be asked and they must be answered”, she said.

On-Going Rescue Operations

Photo by Gerhard Gellinger on Pixabay

As of Wednesday, December 11, rescue and retrieval operations are still on-going as further eight are still missing. In an official statement of the office of the prime minister, it said that they have launched reconnaissance flights over the island since the eruption. However, they haven’t detected signs of life in the are.

In the aftermath of the eruption, rescue teams have immediately landed on the island to aid the victims. But there were also some slight delays in the recovery mission in the past days as the volcanic activity remains high. The New Zealand Police and Defence Force did not commit to a timeline for retrieving the bodies of the remaining victims likely to be on the island.

According to the police, most of the victims are from Australia, the US, UK, China, Germany, Malaysia, as well as New Zealand.