Whakaari / White Island eruption: Seventeenth person dies

5:39 pm on 23 December 2019

Another person has died in Middlemore Hospital last night and police confirmed it was a victim of the Whakaari / White Island eruption.

The eruption seen from the tourists' boat after they had left the island.

Photo: Screengrab / YouTube / Allessandro Kauffman

Police were advised of the death shortly before 11pm.

The death of this person brings the official number of deceased following the eruption on 9 December to 17, 16 of whom died in New Zealand and one in Australia.

Another two people - 40-year-old tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman and 17-year-old Australian tourist Winona Langford - are still unaccounted for.

Police presume their bodies have been washed out to sea.

Chief medical officer at Counties Manukau DHB Dr Peter Watson told Checkpoint the patient who died last night was a foreign national.

He said patients injured in the eruption face a difficult Christmas although some of those burned in the eruption are starting to improve.

There may be people who can be repatriated soon, he said.

"Some of them will be able to return, in the not too distant future. It won't be this week but hopefully in the next two or three weeks there are some whose burns aren't as severe as the others and so their condition, should it continue to improve, they'll be able to be transported home to their country of origin in the next two to three weeks."

He said there were four patients in intensive care at Middlemore Hospital and four in the National Burns Unit. The remaining patients were in Waikato, Hutt Valley and Christchurch hospitals.

Dr Watson said there was still considerable demand on the country's burns units, and it was very hard for patients, their families and staff two weeks on from the deadly eruption.

Many patients continued to receive treatment every other day - and staff were working in hot operating theatres because burns victims lose body heat quickly.

He said it was stressful for staff, and for patients the treatment was intensive.

"It just depends completely on their clinical conditon and that can fluctuate ... but for those who are most unwell that's typically every second or third day.

"Not only is this really hard for the patients and their families but also for the staff. This is very intensive work, theatre staff is typically double what it'd be in a normal theatre. It's very hot work and it's very hard physically, but also demanding psychologically.

"The challenge facing treating staff is huge.

"We're having additional staff come in from around the country and internationally. We've also got a team to support people manage the stress and the challenges associated psychologically with providing such intensive treatment to so many people at the same time."

Four surgeons on rotation have travelled from Australia and more surgeons are travelling from the United States to help.

Nurses have also travelled from around New Zealand to help.

District commander Superintendent Andy McGregor said there were extensive aerial searches at the weekend by the police and Coastguard to find the bodies of the two people unaccounted for, but nothing was found.

He said they would review the search area and make a decision later today whether to continue.

If anyone comes across a body in the water or along the coast, they are urged to call 111 and wait at the location until emergency services arrive.

Volcanic activity on the island

GNS Science said the chance of another eruption between now and January 6 had fallen to a less than 10 percent within any 24-hour period.

However, very hot gas and steam continues to emit from vents in the crater basin and an explosive eruption without warning remains possible.

GNS said the danger remained too high for volcanologists to visit the island.

A maritime exclusion zone in force around Whakaari/White Island following the eruption was lifted on Friday.

A rāhui remains in place. Ngāti Awa said last week a rāhui preventing the gathering of seafood would remain in place until further notice.

A total rāhui was bestowed to respect those who lost their lives and their whānau as well as protecting the mauri or life-force of the area where their bodies are at rest and were placed all along the Eastern Bay of Plenty coastlines by Ngāti Awa and neighbouring iwi.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs