New Zealand police on Tuesday announced a criminal investigation into how an eruption at the White Island volcano led to an estimated 13 deaths.
"I can confirm now that we will commence a criminal investigation into the circumstances of the death and injuries on White Island," deputy commissioner John Tims told reporters in the wake of Monday's disaster.
A volcano on a New Zealand island erupted Monday with a towering blast of ash and scalding steam as tourists were exploring the moon-like surface, killing several people and leaving perhaps two dozen others missing.
Police said the site was still too dangerous hours later for rescuers to search for the missing. The terrifying disaster immediately raised questions of why people were allowed to visit the island some 50 kilometers off mainland New Zealand after scientists had noted an uptick in volcanic activity in recent weeks. Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said the number of missing was in the double digits but he couldn't confirm an exact number.
Fewer than 50 people were on the island when it erupted, and 23 had been taken off, including the five dead, he said. Tims said there had been no contact with any of the missing. He said New Zealanders and foreign tourists were among the dead, missing or injured.
Most of the 18 who survived were injured, some suffering severe burns, he said. Some of the visitors were passengers from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas. We will offer all possible assistance to our guests and local authorities. Please keep all those affected in your prayers, the cruise line said.
The ship had left Sydney last week and had been scheduled to sail to the New Zealand capital of Wellington on Monday night, but Royal Caribbean said it would instead remain in port on neighboring North Island until more was learned about the situation.
The eruption sent a plume of steam and ash about 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) into the air. The GeoNet agency, which monitors volcanoes and earthquakes in New Zealand, had raised the alert level on White Island on November 18 from 1 to 2, on a scale where 5 represents a major eruption, noting an increase in sulfur dioxide gas, which originates from magma deep in the volcano.
It also said at the time that over the previous weeks, volcanic tremors had increased from weak to moderate strength. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who traveled to the region, said the focus remained on the search-and-rescue mission for now and questions about whether tourists should be visiting would be addressed later.