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Whakaari-White Island eruption: Why tourists were allowed on the island

Questions are being raised over why tourists were allowed on Whakaari-White Island, but the company that owns the tour firm says the alert level was within its guidelines.

Eight people are still missing on Whakaari-White Island after yesterday's eruption, five have died and 31 remain in hospital. A total of 47 people were on the island at the time of the two explosions.

On November 18 the alert level was lifted to 2 on the 0-5 scale, indicating moderate volcanic unrest.

The alert was briefly raised to 4 during yesterday's eruption and is now at level 3, classed as "minor volcanic eruption".

Paul Quinn, chair of Ngāti Awa Holdings, which owns White Island Tours, said the heightened alert levels on the volcano over the last few weeks didn't meet its threshold for stopping operations.

Quinn said two of his staff were unaccounted for.

"There was one boat left over there that had 38 clients and there were four staff accompanying them on the tour at the time of the eruption.

"Two of our staff are unaccounted for."

He said White Island Tours had previously taken visitors to Whakaari-White Island when the volcano had been at a level 2.

He said that alert level was within its operating guidelines.

"GNS do the monitoring, and they advise us if there are any changes, and we operate around their guidelines in terms of what levels are stipulated.

"Level 3 and above we liaise more directly with GNS but that level 2 is still within our operational guidelines."

He said ceasing tours had not been discussed, and everyone was comfortable to continue operating.

Quinn would not say whether changes need to be made.

"It's too early to worry about those things.

"Our concern at this stage is with our staff and our manuhiri and their wider whānau," he said.

The White Island alert level is at 3 indicating 'minor volcanic eruption'. Graphic: Geonet

No signs of life 

A Ngāti Awa leader has confirmed a rāhui has been placed on Whakaari-White Island after the deadly eruption yesterday.

Whakatane District Council pou tikanga Pouroto Ngaropo performed the rāhui ceremony early this morning.

Ngaropo said the rāhui covers the island and the waters around it.

"The rāhui is going to protect the island, the ocean, those who are there, their families and all those who are carrying out important work at the moment."

Earlier this morning, Waikato Police Superintendent Bruce Bird said 47 people went on to the island. Of them five are confirmed dead, eight are missing, 31 are in hospitals around the country and three have been discharged.

Police said surveillance of the island, in one instance a 45-minute overflight on Monday, had given no indications anyone left there had survived. 

A Navy ship was to approach Whakaari-White Island at first light to deploy drones and observational equipment to assess the environment and seek any survivors.

The earlier flights had been conducted by the police Eagle helicopter, rescue helicopter, and NZDF aircraft.

"No signs of life have been seen at any point," police said in a statement released at 12.11am on Tuesday.

"Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island."

Among the injured or missing are 24 Australians between the ages of 17 and 72, Americans, Chinese, British and Malaysians, as well as New Zealanders.

The five dead include Whakatāne man Hayden Marshall-Inman. They were all part a group of 23 taken off the island just after the eruption.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was a "very hard day" for Australian families whose loved ones had been caught up in this "terrible, terrible tragedy".

A DVI (disaster victim identification) team from the Australian police force will be on its way to New Zealand today.

Flights over the volcano by police, military, and rescue planes have not found any sign of life.

'Right decision' over rescue attempts

Meanwhile a natural hazard expert says it was the right decision to stop helicopters heading back to Whakaari-White Island after initial rescue efforts.

University of Canterbury professor of disaster risk and resilience Tom Wilson said further eruptions can occur after the initial event.

There can a pyroclastic flow - a blast where very hot gas and ash and other volcanic debris combine and flow away from the vent, he said.

"That can be very very hazardous to life.

"I think the decision-making process has been very good," he told Morning Report.

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