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New Zealand eruption death toll rises to 18

By AFP - Dec 15,2019 - Last updated at Dec 15,2019

This handout photo taken and released on Friday by the New Zealand defence force shows soldiers taking part in a mission to retrieve bodies from White Island  (AFP photo)

WELLINGTON — The death toll from New Zealand’s White Island volcano eruption rose to 18 on Sunday, including two people whose bodies have not been recovered, police said.

A land search early on Sunday failed to find any sign of the missing pair and divers returned to the sea in the afternoon amid increasing speculation both could be in the water.

Deputy police commissioner Mike Clement said there was “every chance” the bodies had been washed into the sea from the stream where they were last seen on Monday.

He added that searchers were “satisfied that the area we searched near the jetty is clear of the bodies”.

“The rescue teams are frustrated. We understand completely how frustrating it is for loved ones who want the bodies back,” Clement said.

Forty-seven people were on the island — a popular tourist attraction — when the explosion happened.

The death toll now stands at 18 after an Australian victim who had been repatriated to Sydney died in hospital almost a week after the deadly eruption.

Another 26 survivors remain in New Zealand and Australian hospitals, of which at least 18 are listed as “critical” and fighting for their lives after the eruption on the desolate island, which is the country’s most active volcano.

The family of the latest victim have requested his name and age not be released.

Police on Sunday named seven victims who have been officially identified including New Zealand tour guide Tipene James Te Rangi Ataahua Maangi, 24.

Four were Australians — Zoe Ella Hosking, 15, her stepfather Gavin Brian Dallow, 53, 51-year-old Anthony James Langford and Karla Michelle Mathews, 32 — along with Matthew Robert Hollander, 13 and Berend Lawrence Hollander, 16, who were US citizens with Australian permanent residency.

Clement said although the land and sea searches had so far been unsuccessful in finding the remaining bodies, police had not given up hope.

“There will come a time when we’ve done everything we can do, when we’ve done everything that’s sensible but we’re not there yet... we don’t give up easily,” he said.

Scientists monitoring White Island said there had been no further significant activity since last Monday’s eruption but the risk remained with the volcano alert at Level Two, which indicates “moderate to heightened unrest with potential for eruption hazards”.

A glow was visible from the vent area overnight “which confirms there is a high heat flow present”, said Geoff Kilgour, a volcanologist with GNS Science, which monitors seismic and volcanic activity in New Zealand.

“This has been confirmed today by an aerial observation this morning that noted an active crater is emitting volcanic gas at a high rate and very high temperature” above 200ºC.

The disaster has raised questions about why tourists were allowed on a volcano where experts had recently raised threat levels.

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