Serena Ends Three-Year Title Drought, Gives Winnings To Bushfire Appeal

Serena Williams of the US reacts and poses with trophy after winning against Jessica Pegula of the US during their women’s singles final match during the Auckland Classic tennis tournament in Auckland on January 12, 2020. MICHAEL BRADLEY / AF

 

 

Serena Williams ended a three-year title drought and donated her winner’s cheque to victims of the Australian bushfires in an emotional WTA Auckland Classic final on Sunday.

Williams raised expectations for this month’s Australian Open, where she can equal Margaret Court’s record of 24 Grand Slam titles, with her 6-3, 6-4 victory — her first WTA trophy since she won in Melbourne in 2017.

But the 38-year-old tempered celebrations as she donated her US$43,000 winners cheque to the Australian bushfire relief fund and described how the tragedy had affected her deeply.

“I’ve been playing in Australia for over 20 years and it’s been really hard for me to watch all the news and everything that has been happening in Australia with all the fire and… animals and people that have lost their homes,” she said.

“I decided at the beginning of the tournament… I’d donate all my prize money for a great cause.”

It is Williams’ first title since 2017 — and her first as a mother — since she won the Australian Open while pregnant. Her 73 WTA titles now stretch across four decades, after she won her first in 1999.

The tournament top seed slipped 1-3 behind in the first set against the unseeded Pegula, a fellow American.

But once she found her range there was never any doubt about the final result, which Williams greeted by raising her arms in triumph while her husband Alexis Ohanian and two-year-old daughter Olympia looked on.

“It’s been a long time, I think you could see the relief on my face,” she said, adding she could feel her game sharpening up as she prepares to head to Melbourne.

“It definitely feels good, it feels like i was definitely improving as the week went on and obviously I needed to.”

Yelling with every point

Pegula, who has only one title to her credit, had stunned former world number one Caroline Wozniacki — a close friend of Williams — in a three-set semi-final, winning every game in the deciding set.

The 25-year-old continued in the same fearless vein at the start of the final, seemingly untroubled by her heavily bandaged left thigh as she chased down everything Williams delivered and even broke Williams’ first serve.

Pegula held her own serve and appeared set to break again when Williams, by this stage yelling with every point she won, fought back from 15-40 to hold her second serve on the fifth deuce.

Williams eventually achieved a break of her own to level at 3-3, finding the power and precision that had deserted her until then.

With her confidence boosted, Williams held to love in the next game, broke Pegula again and then served to clinch the first set.

Pegula was down 0-40 at the start of the second set before rallying to hold serve but the strain of facing the player who has dominated women’s tennis for two decades was showing.

Williams broke on Pegula’s next service game and stayed in front until the end of the set to take the title and end a sequence of five defeats in finals since her 2017 win in Melbourne.

No Longer Angry Serena Glad To Be Back In New Zealand

Serena Williams of the US serves against Qiang Wang of China during their Women’s Singles Quarter-finals tennis match during the 2019 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York on September 3, 2019. DOMINICK REUTER / AFP

 

Serena Williams returns to the Auckland WTA Classic on Monday for the first time since her “miserable” debut appearance two years ago, determined to put the record straight.

“I’m in a really different frame of mind,” she said ahead of her opening match on day one — a marquee doubles appearance partnering Caroline Wozniacki — with her first-round singles against long-time rival Svetlana Kuznetsova expected on Tuesday.

The 38-year-old Williams is banking on Auckland setting her up for an unprecedented 24th major title at the Australian Open later in the month.

Williams was way below par when she played in Auckland in 2017, complaining about the windy conditions, being abrupt in interviews and could not wait to get out of the country as soon as she lost in the second round to Madison Brengle.

But she says the anger she felt then has gone.

“I’m not pregnant, as a start, so that works, so I can only do good now,” the tournament top seed and world number 10 joked with journalists as she reflected on how she was unaware at the time that she was six weeks pregnant with her daughter Alexis Olympia.

“I just remember it was windy and being angry, hating my now husband (Alexis Ohanian). I was like ‘I can’t stand you and I don’t know why,'” she said.

“Obviously at the time I didn’t know why either … I was six weeks pregnant and I had no idea. So looking back it’s so surreal and crazy and now that I’m here, I have all of these funny memories of being miserable.

“I always knew that I would have to come back, for sure. I didn’t even realize what was happening, and now I’m here with my daughter.

“This is kind of where it all began. It’s amazing. It’s so exciting to be here with her, and to know that this is literally where it started.”

Despite her quick exit in 2017, Williams went on to win the Australian Open for her 23rd major title, but has not won a tournament since.

Williams, who has a 10-3 record against Kuznetsova in a 16-year rivalry, said she was pleased to be playing her “really good friend” first up.

“I like to play really tough opponents in the first round, and there’s no better way to start than to start serious. I really love her and adore her, and I wish it could’ve been a little bit later, for both of us,” she said.

She was also looking forward to playing with former world number one Wozniacki in the doubles, calling the Dane “one of my best friends”.

Meanwhile, the Auckland tournament has been hit with the late withdrawal of seventh seed Jelena Ostapenko who pulled out for “personal reasons”.

The 22-year-old Latvian, who won the French Open in 2017, is the second high-profile withdrawal with Canadian Bianca Andreescu pulling out last month due to her ongoing knee problems.

Andreescu defeated Williams to claim the US Open title in September last year.

Labuschagne Hits Ton Against New Zealand

Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne plays a shot during the first day of the third cricket Test match between Australia and New Zealand at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney on January 3, 2020.
JEREMY NG / AFP

 

Marnus Labuschagne hit his fourth century in just 14 Tests to guide Australia into a commanding position against virus-hit New Zealand on the opening day of the third Test in Sydney on Friday.

The rock-solid number three, last year’s leading Test scorer with 1,104 runs at 64.94, again proved the Black Caps’ nemesis with his second ton of the series to continue his remarkable scoring sequence.

Supported by Steve Smith’s 28th Test half-century, Australia reached stumps at 283 for three with Labuschagne unbeaten on 130 and Matthew Wade a breezy 22 not out.

The South African-born Labuschagne has now scored four centuries in seven Test innings this southern summer against Pakistan and New Zealand.

“Terrific day,” he said. “When you bat on day one you know it can be a real prosperous day but if you get off to a shaky start it can be tough work.

“It’s all a bit of a whirlwind at the moment. I haven’t really sat down and completely thought about how amazing this summer has been for me.”

Smith, who took 39 balls to get off the mark, shared in a 156-run stand with Labuschagne before he again missed out after a lengthy stay and was caught at slip off Colin de Grandhomme for 63 off 182 balls.

David Warner fell again to the leg-side trap on the third ball after lunch when he was caught by de Grandhomme at leg gully off Neil Wagner for 45.

It was the fourth time in the series left-armer Wagner has snared Warner, who has yet to reach a half-century against New Zealand this summer after scoring an unbeaten 335 and 154 against Pakistan last November.

Opener Joe Burns was dismissed in the 15th over, squared up by de Grandhomme and caught by Taylor at first slip for 18.

De Grandhomme opened the bowling with Matt Henry after senior paceman Tim Southee was surprisingly left out of the attack.

Australia won the toss and chose to bat against the visitors, who made five changes to the team that lost the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne by 247 runs.

Illness woes 

The Black Caps went into the Sydney Test without skipper and star batsman Kane Williamson, who has been ill in the lead-up.

Batsman Henry Nicholls and spinner Mitchell Santner were other illness withdrawals while Southee lost his place to leg-spinner Todd Astle.

Paceman Trent Boult is also missing after returning home with a broken hand suffered in the second Test in Melbourne.

Batsman Glenn Phillips, who made a late dash to Sydney as cover on Thursday, was named to make his Test debut, with opener Tom Latham to lead the side in Williamson’s absence.

Will Somerville, Matt Henry and Jeet Raval were also called into the side, while the Australians were unchanged after considering Mitchell Swepson as a second spinner.

Australia have been unbeatable this season, winning all four Tests at home — two each against Pakistan and New Zealand — after retaining the Ashes in England.

The Test is being played against the backdrop of one of Australia’s most devastating bushfire seasons with at least 18 people losing their lives in blazes raging across the country, including on the outskirts of Sydney.

Play will be suspended in the match at the umpire’s discretion, should smoke significantly affect air quality or visibility, but the sky above the ground was clear during the first day’s play.

Two Dead, 2,500 Seek Emergency Shelter In Cyclone-Battered Fiji

 

 

Tropical Cyclone Sarai was moving slowly away from Fiji on Sunday, leaving two people dead and more than 2,500 needing emergency shelter.

The cyclone damaged houses, crops and trees, cut power and forced the cancellation of several international flights, stranding holidaymakers visiting the island nation, which is a major tourist draw.

National Disaster Management Office director Vasiti Soko said an 18-year-old student drowned off the island of Kadavu.

“The man is believed to have been swept away by strong currents when he was swimming with his friends,” she said.

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The body of a man in his 40s was found on Sunday off the coast of the main island Viti Levu a day after he was swept away by strong currents when crossing a river.

Another person was in intensive care in hospital after being hit by a falling tree.

Soko said that at the height of the storm, there were 2,538 people packed into 70 evacuation centres although by Sunday evening 500 had been cleared to return home.

Electricity was restored to 80 percent of the capital Suva but power company Energy Fiji Limited said it could take a week to restore supplies to all areas of Viti Levu.

Sarai, maintaining winds of up to 150 kilometres per hour (93 miles per hour), was tracking east and was expected to pass over Tonga on New Year’s Eve.

Death Toll In New Zealand Volcano Eruption Rises To 18

File Photo

 

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

A land search early 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 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 200 degrees Celsius (392 degrees Fahrenheit).

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

Divers Search For Remaining Bodies From NZ Volcanic Eruption

This handout photo taken and released on December 13, 2019 by the New Zealand Defence Force shows elite soldiers taking part in a mission to retrieve bodies from White Island after the December 9 volcanic eruption, off the coast from Whakatane on the North Island. AFP

 

Divers searched seas around New Zealand’s volatile White Island Saturday for two people still missing five days after the volcano erupted, as the death toll rose to 17.

Police deputy commissioner John Tims said the divers faced “unique and challenging conditions” as they searched waters “with between zero and two metres visibility”.

They were focusing on an area where a body was seen floating in the water earlier in the week.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, meanwhile, has called for a minute’s silence to be observed at 2.11pm (0111 GMT) on Monday in honour of the victims of the eruption.

“Together we can express our sorrow for those who have died and been hurt, and our support for their grieving families and friends,” Ardern said, with the minute’s silence to start exactly one week after the eruption began.

Of the 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption, the number killed rose to 17 with another fatality confirmed on Saturday, police said, without releasing details of name, age or nationality.

Another 27 remain in hospitals in New Zealand and Australia with 20 listed as being in a “critical” condition.

Scientists monitoring the island said the likelihood of another eruption over the weekend was decreasing but the risk remained.

“Their new calculation was that there is a 35-50 per percent chance of an eruption occurring,” Natalia Deligne, a volcanic hazard and risk modeller, said.

The remains of six people were retrieved Friday in a daring operation by elite soldiers with two military helicopters under threat of another blast.

The recovery had been on hold for days as poisonous gases continued billowing from the volcanic vent and the island remained blanketed in a thick layer of acidic ash.

The coroner in New Zealand is working through a “robust” process to identify the bodies, authorities said.

Most of the people on the island were tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China, Germany, Malaysia and New Zealand who were on a day trip to see the natural wonder.

The survivors’ injuries are so severe New Zealand doctors initially estimated they would need to import 1.2 million square centimetres (185,000 square inches) of skin for grafts.

New Zealand police on Saturday officially identified the first victim as 21-year-old Australian woman Krystal Browitt.

Browitt was on a family holiday to celebrate her birthday in New Zealand when she joined her older sister Stephanie and father Paul on a visit to the island.

Her mother Marie stayed behind on the boat, and has since been by the bedside of her daughter and husband who were both originally in a coma in a hospital burns unit following the eruption, according to a GoFundMe page set up for the family.

“It has been quite difficult,” a friend of the Browitt daughters, Tahlia West told AFP.

West remembered Krystal as “just a beautiful girl, very caring, very gentle.”

All 13 Australians hospitalised have been repatriated. The current condition of Stephanie and Paul is unknown.

AFP

NZ Troops Launch Mission To Get Bodies Off Volcano

An airforce helicopter leaves Whakatane airport as it assists with the recovery of the 8 bodies on White Island who perished in the December the 9th White Island eruption, in New Zealand, on December 13, 2019.  Marty MELVILLE / AFP

 

New Zealand troops launched a perilous dawn mission Friday to recover bodies from a volcanic island that is threatening to erupt again.

Two military helicopters set off from Whakatane at first light for White Island, the volcano off the North Island where an eruption last Monday is believed to have resulted in at least 16 deaths.

At the same time, police took grieving families out near the island on a boat and a Maori blessing was performed.

Authorities say eight bodies remain on the volcano and — after coming under pressure from distraught families — they approved a recovery mission despite a 50-60 percent chance it will explode again in the next day or so.

Vulcanologists will monitor live feeds of seismic activity from the still-mouldering volcano as the eight-strong military team attempt to extract the bodies, ready to call off the operation if signs point to another eruption.

“Of course I’m worried, I would be inhuman if I did not worry,” deputy police commissioner Mike Clement said when he outlined the plan late Thursday, adding “we have a job to do”.

With the help of drone flights and helicopter pilots who were near the volcano immediately after the eruption, authorities have located six of the eight bodies on the island.

The plan is to immediately recover the six bodies and search for the other two, then transport them to military frigate HMNZS Wellington anchored off the coast, Clement said.

The operation is expected to take several hours.

Heartbreak And Disbelief As Volcano Victims Named

This handout photo taken on December 9, 2019 and released on December 10, 2019 from the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust shows the view from a rescue helicopter as it heads toward the smoldering White Island volcano off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. AFP

 

The families and friends of Australian victims of the White Island volcano tragedy paid tribute to “wonderful” lost loved ones Wednesday and expressed doubt they were made aware of the risks of visiting the island.

Seven of the nine people so far identified and named as missing by New Zealand police are from Australia.

That number is expected to rise.

Many more of the victims are expected to have been day-trippers from a cruise ship that left from Sydney.

As the human toll from Monday’s eruption came into sharper focus, the families of four of those Australian victims — who are presumed dead — spoke out.

“Gavin was a wonderful son and brother,” father Brian Dallow told media, saying it would have a “big impact” on the family, especially at Christmastime. “We’re really going to miss him.”

“We’ll miss him at the cricket -– I will, at least, and we’ll miss him at the football.”

“He was a generous man, always helping his family and his community.”

Gavin Dallow was believed killed along with his 15-year-old stepdaughter Zoe Hosking.

“Our hearts break at the loss of Zoe at such a young age. We know her loss will also devastate her school community and the local Girl Guides of which she was an active member,” her step grandfather said.

Her mother — Lisa Hosking is among those being treated for severe burns.

Brian Dallow said he did not believe his son would have visited the island if he was aware of the risk.

“I think if he knew there was a danger, he would haven’t gone on it. So I’m pretty sure they weren’t fully informed of the dangers, otherwise he would haven’t gone. I’m quite sure of that. That’s the only thing I can be really positive about.”

Brisbane woman Julie Richards and her 20-year-old daughter Jessica were also presumed dead.

Family friend John Mickel said news of their deaths was “devastating”.

“New Zealand police earlier this morning confirmed that both Julie and Jess are amongst the deceased in this tragic incident in New Zealand,” he told reporters in Brisbane.

Mickel described the pair as “adventurous” and lovers of outdoor sports, saying Jessica was a university student and promising Australian Rules player.

“The family, of course, are united in grief.”

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government had “activated a repatriation plan to bring a number of Australians injured in the White Island volcano tragedy from New Zealand to Australia for specialist medical care.”

Up to 10 injured patients will be transferred, beginning in the next 24 hours.

“Three Royal Australian Air Force aircraft have been deployed to New Zealand as part of the repatriation effort.”

AFP

Eruption Fears Halt Plans To Get Bodies Off New Zealand Volcano

This handout image courtesy of Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies, shows the White Island volcano in New Zealand on May 12, 2019.  HO / Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies / AFP

 

Fears of another eruption at the New Zealand volcano believed to have killed 15 people made it too dangerous for emergency teams to recover bodies, police said Wednesday, as doctors fought to save survivors who suffered horrific burns.

The official death toll after Monday’s explosion on White Island stands at six, with police listing another nine as missing, up from the previous figure of eight.

Their bodies are thought to be on the island, but it remains too hazardous for rescuers to travel there, and for forensic pathologists, odontologists and other victim identification experts to begin their work.

“Every day that passes with those bodies unrecovered is a day of anguish for their loved ones… but right now, the science tells us that the risk is just too high,” Civil Defence emergency director Sarah Stuart-Black said.

Health officials said 22 survivors still being treated in hospital burns units around the country remained in a critical condition requiring airway support.

They said an extra 1.2 million square centimetres (1,300 square foot) of skin for grafts was being sent from Australia and the United States to treat burns victims.

When the volcano exploded it is believed to have sent superheated steam, ash and cannonball-like rocks hurtling from the caldera at supersonic speed.

Police Minister Stuart Nash said some injuries were so severe that victims could not identify themselves.

“There are a number of people in hospital who cannot communicate, they have significant burns not only to skin but internal organs,” he told Radio New Zealand.

“We’re working very closely with a number of agencies to ensure we get this identification right.”

A total of 47 day-trippers and guides were on the island when the blast occurred, hailing from Australia, the United States, Britain, China, Germany, Malaysia and New Zealand.

Nash said the survivors were receiving world-class treatment but warned “there are still some very, very seriously injured people in hospital”.

“We wish them the best but we’re not out of the woods yet, of that there’s no doubt,” he said.

 ‘Grief and sorrow’ –

Australia says 13 of its citizens were being treated and 11 were unaccounted for.

Prime Minster Scott Morrison said three military aircraft with specialist medical crews had been dispatched to repatriate some of the survivors.

“This is a time of immense grief and great sorrow for everyone involved,” he said.

Two Britons have also been confirmed as injured and Malaysia’s High Commission on Wednesday confirmed one of its nationals was critically injured, in addition to one previously announced death.

Police have been cautious about identifying victims but late Wednesday released a list of nine people who were missing, including seven Australians and two New Zealanders.

A coronial process has begun to identify the six confirmed dead but police said it “can take some time”.

Seismologists have predicted there is a 40-60 percent chance of another eruption on the island, which sits semi-submerged 50 kilometres (30 miles) out to sea.

Poisonous gases are still billowing from the volcanic vent and the island is blanketed in a thick layer of acidic ash.

“It would be madness for us to send men and women across to White Island in a situation that was not safe,” Nash said.

A drone flew over the island Wednesday to measure toxic gas levels and police said the data it collected was still being assessed.

With weather expected to deteriorate on Thursday, pressure is building to begin the recovery operation.

“We’re assessing all factors every two or three hours to see if we can go,” superintendent Bruce Bird told reporters.

The eruption at White Island — also known as Whakaari — occurred on Monday afternoon, spewing a thick plume of white ash 3.6 kilometres (12,000 feet) into the sky.

Visitors at the time included a group of more than 30 from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, the Ovation of the Seas, which left Sydney on a 12-day voyage last week with up to 4,000 passengers onboard.

The ship had delayed its departure from nearby Tauranga in the wake of the disaster but set off for Wellington early Wednesday morning, leaving a team to help those affected.

The island in the picturesque Bay of Plenty attracts more than 17,000 visitors every year and is marketed as an experience for the adventurous traveller.

But the volcano’s threat level had been raised in the days before the eruption, leading to questions about whether tour groups should have been allowed to visit.

AFP

Families Face Painful Wait As Volcano Rescue Stalls

This handout photo taken on December 9, 2019 and released on December 10, 2019 from the Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust shows the view from a rescue helicopter as it heads toward the smoldering White Island volcano off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Handout / Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust / AFP

 

More than 24 hours after New Zealand’s White Island volcano erupted, families around the world are still waiting for answers about their loved ones, with the island deemed too dangerous to search.

Thirteen people are dead or missing, but on-island recovery efforts are on hold as scientists say the volcano has a 50 percent chance of erupting again within the next 24 hours.

Police want to deploy drones to measure toxic gas levels in the island’s atmosphere and determine whether it is safe to return, but windy conditions have so far prevented them from being flown.

“We can never say 100 percent, but I would strongly suggest that there is no one that has survived on the island,” deputy commissioner John Tims said.

Among the 47 people caught on the island during the sudden eruption were 24 tourists from Australia, nine from the United States, two from Britain, two from China, four from Germany and one from Malaysia, as well as five locals.

There are 34 confirmed survivors, with 27 receiving treatment in New Zealand hospitals for burns to more than 71 percent of their bodies.

Families of some missing tourists and guides say they have not yet received any news from authorities about the fate of their relatives.

Adelaide man Brian Dallow said he was desperately concerned about his son Gavin, daughter-in-law Lisa, and her 15-year-old daughter Zoe Hosking.

“All we know at the moment is they were on the island and they’ve been confirmed as missing,” he told AFP. “As far as we know they didn’t get back on the ship last night.”

“We’ve been in touch with just about everybody on this Earth I think — we registered with Foreign Affairs, we registered with the Red Cross … We registered with everybody we can.”

Also among those missing is New Zealander Tipene Maangi, a tour guide in his early 20s, whose family were holding out hope that he was still alive.

“They have said that those that are on the island there are no survivors, and we are not sure if our nephew is over there on the island or if he is in one of the hospitals,” his aunt, Jaqueline, told TVNZ.

“So we are hopeful that he’s one of them that’s in the hospitals and we will soon know.”

“We are scared and are emotional and some of us do want to fall apart, but it’s not really an option. We have to stay strong.”

New Zealand officials said they were doing everything possible to hasten recovery efforts and support families.

“We absolutely believe that everyone that could be taken from the island yesterday were rescued at the time of the evacuation,” police deputy commissioner Tims told reporters in Wellington.

“We understand the desire from the locals and the loved ones, to remove their family from the island,” he added. “We are working around the clock.”

AFP

Police Launch Probe Into New Zealand Volcano Deaths

Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern (C) with New Zealand Police Superintendent Bruce Bird (L) and Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner (R) speak to the media about the eruption of Whakaari/White Island during a press conference in Whakatane on December 10, 2019.  Marty MELVILLE / AFP

 

New Zealand police on Tuesday announced an investigation into how an eruption at the White Island volcano led to an estimated 13 deaths.

The threat level at the volcano was raised in the week before Monday’s disaster, prompting questions about whether tour groups should have been allowed to visit the popular destination off the North Island coast.

Police said in a statement that they “commenced an investigation into the circumstances of the deaths and injuries” at the volcano.

However, they backed away from an earlier announcement that the probe was a criminal investigation, saying instead it was being carried out on behalf of the coroner.

No reason for the reversal was immediately provided.

The investigation would run parallel to a probe conducted by the workplace watchdog Work Safety New Zealand.

Officials have confirmed five fatalities and say another eight are missing presumed dead after New Zealand’s most active volcano exploded while tourists were exploring it on Monday afternoon.

Speaking before the investigation was announced, travel operator White Island Tours said it took safety responsibilities extremely seriously.

“We take our steer from (government geoscience agency) GNS, who send us a report telling us what the activity levels are, if it’s deemed level two, which it was yesterday,” chairman Paul Quinn told TVNZ.

Quinn said the company had taken visitors to White Island when the activity alert was at level two, which warns of “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest”.

He said two of the company’s guides were unaccounted for after the eruption.

AFP

‘Unfathomable Grief’ As Eight Still Missing At New Zealand Volcano

 

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern expressed “unfathomable grief” Tuesday for tourists caught in a deadly eruption at the White Island volcano, where five people have died and eight more are feared dead.

Ardern held out no hope for the eight people still missing after Monday’s tragedy, saying overnight aerial reconnaissance flights had found no signs of survivors.

“The focus this morning is on recovery and ensuring police can do that safely,” she told a press conference.

Among the missing are tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China and Malaysia, as well as New Zealanders who were acting as guides.

“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief and in your sorrow,” Ardern said.

“Your loved ones stood alongside Kiwis who were hosting you here and we grieve with you.”

In addition to the five dead and eight missing, Ardern said 31 people who were on the island during the cataclysm were in hospital with various injuries, including serious burns.

In the hours after the eruption, police had determined the risk was too great for on-land rescues.

Police spokesman Bruce Bird said a helicopter has scoured the area for 45 minutes, checking if anyone was still alive — without success.

Safety concerns have stalled the effort to recover bodies.

“We will only go to the island when it is safe to do so for our people,” said Bird.

A large proportion of the victims are thought to be Australian.

At the time of the eruption, the island was being visited by a group of more than 30 people from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, the Ovation of the Seas, which left Sydney on a 12-day voyage last week.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 24 Australians were among those on the volcano tour.

“We must prepare for some difficult news in the days ahead,” he said.

Britain’s high commissioner in New Zealand said two of its citizens were being treated.

Camera Feeds Went Black

The eruption at White Island — also known as Whakaari — occurred just after 2:00 pm Monday (0100 GMT), thrusting a thick plume of white ash 3.6 kilometres (12,000 feet) into the sky.

The island is about 50 kilometres (30 miles) offshore in the picturesque Bay of Plenty and attracts about 10,000 visitors every year.

Seconds before, live camera feeds showed a group of more than a half dozen people walking on the crater floor. Then the images went black.

The threat level at the volcano had been raised in recent days, and questions are already being raised about whether it was safe for tour groups to visit.

Cruise operator Royal Caribbean had sold a day trip to White Island as an “unforgettable” adventure to New Zealand’s most active volcano, one that took visitors so close to the action they could require gas masks and hard hats.

White Island Tours said it “operates through the varying alert levels” but that “passengers should be aware that there is always a risk of eruptive activity regardless of the alert level.”

Ardern said there were legitimate questions to be asked but they could wait until the emergency response was complete.

“The focus today is on providing critical care for those who have been injured,” she said.

Scientists said there had been increased activity at the volcano over the past week — but nothing to indicate an eruption was imminent.

“The eruption was unfortunate but not completely unexpected,” said Jessica Johnson, a geophysicist at the University of East Anglia.

She said levels of activity “have been relatively high since September, and even more elevated over the last couple of weeks,” with small earthquakes and more volcanic gas detected than usual.