December 13, 2019 / 9:07 PM / 8 months ago

New Zealand divers search for volcano victims; death toll rises to 15

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand divers searched contaminated waters near the volcanic White Island for two remaining bodies on Saturday, as the death toll from an eruption rose to 15 people, the police said.

Waters around the island were contaminated by the massive eruption of rocks, lava and chemicals on Monday, reducing visibility.

“Divers have reported seeing a number of dead fish and eels washed ashore and floating in the water,” police said in a statement. “Each time they surface, the divers are decontaminated using fresh water.”

The remains of six people were successfully recovered on Friday after a military team in gas masks and hazmat suits landed on the uninhabited island and removed the bodies in a high-risk operation.

Police said they could not retrieve the remains of two more people, but spotted at least one body in the waters not too far from the island shoreline.

Nine police dive squad members resumed their search at 7.00 a.m. local time (1800 GMT Friday) and the operation would be boosted by a navy dive team later in the day.

The police said in an earlier statement they will not return to the island for a land-based search on Saturday, but will return in the future.

“Today’s planning will allow us to return to the island to conduct further land-based searches for the remaining deceased, as the environment on and around the island allows,” police said. “There will be no return to the island today.”

In a statement released on Saturday, geological agency GeoNet said there was a 35% to 50% risk of an eruption that would impact beyond the volcano’s vent area in the next 24 hours. A decrease from the 50% and 60% risk announced on Friday.

The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trippers, erupted on Monday, spewing ash, steam and gases over the island. Among the 47 people on the island at the time were Australian, U.S., German, Chinese, British and Malaysian tourists.

The death toll rose to 15 on Saturday as one more person died in the hospital. The toll may rise further as more than two dozen people are still hospitalized across New Zealand and Australia, most with severe burn injuries.

Slideshow (4 Images)

There has been criticism that tourists were allowed on the island at all, given signs of increasing tremor activity in the days before the eruption.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Saturday that a minute’s silence will be observed at 2.11 p.m. local time (0111GMT) on December 16, exactly one week from when the fatal eruption occurred.

“Wherever you are in New Zealand, or around the world, this is a moment we can stand alongside those who have lost loved ones in this extraordinary tragedy,” Ardern said in the statement.

Reporting by Praveen Menon in Wellington and Will Ziebell in Melbourne, Editing by Michael Perry and Gerry Doyle

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