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Rescuers on horrific scenes of victims in NZ volcano eruption

Rescuers recall horrific scenes in NZ volcano eruption tragedy as death toll rises to 6, with 8 still missing

WHAKATANE, NEW ZEALAND As New Zealand's White Island volcano erupted on Monday, about 40 people fled for their lives, with many jumping into the sea.

Some of them emerged from the water with exposed skin that had been severely burned.

This was just one of the horrific scenes of the tragedy, with the death toll as of yesterday standing at six with eight still missing and presumed dead.

Another 31 were warded in seven hospitals, with several in burn units with serious injuries, the New Zealand Herald reported.

There were 47 people on the island, 38 of them from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, when the volcano erupted at 2.11pm local time, spewing searing hot ash, steam and rocks more than 3.5km into the sky.

Thirty-four injured victims and five bodies were taken off the island by rescuers, whom Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern praised as heroic in the face of extreme danger.

Among them were the crews of four rescue helicopters that landed on the island soon after the eruption.

"Those pilots made an incredibly brave decision under extraordinarily dangerous circumstances in an attempt to get people out," Ms Ardern told reporters yesterday.

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

A commercial helicopter pilot who led a team that rescued 12 victims said he believed he was their last hope of survival.

"We found people dead, dying and alive but in various states of unconsciousness," Mr Mark Law, a tour company boss who spent an hour on the ground, told The Guardian.

New Zealand pastor Geoff Hopkins was on a boat offshore with his daughter Lilliani, 22, after visiting the island as a 50th birthday present for him when they saw the eruption.

"It was quite beautiful... but then it suddenly became quite menacing," he told the Herald.

As the crew brought the injured in inflatable boats on board, the Hopkins, who are trained in first aid, joined two doctors to tend to them.

"I don't think there was anyone that came off who wasn't badly burned," Mr Hopkins said. "People were in shorts and T-shirts, so there was a lot of exposed skin that was massively burned."

They poured fresh water on the victims, cut off their clothes and tried to keep them calm.

The boat took back 23 injured victims, five of them critical, to the mainland.

Among the survivors were US couple Matthew and Lauren Urey, who were on their honeymoon.

'NOT A JOKE'

Ms Janet Urey, 61, a nurse, told CNN that her 36-year-old son called her at midnight and said: "Mum... this is not a joke. A volcano erupted while we were on the island. We are at the hospital with severe burns."

Mr Urey had burns on 80 per cent of his body and is being treated at a Christchurch burns unit.

Meanwhile, his 32-year-old wife underwent surgery for burns to her lower extremities covering at least 20 per cent of her body and is recovering in an Auckland hospital about 1,000km away, her mother Barbara Barham, said.

The police said the 47 people on the island were 24 Australians, nine Americans and five New Zealanders.

The others included Germans, Britons, the Chinese and a Malaysian, who has been confirmed to be among the dead.

Among the missing is Mr Tipene Maangi, a tour guide in his early 20s, whose family members are holding out hope that he is still alive.

New Zealand's Deputy Police Commissioner John Tims said yesterday police were opening a criminal investigation into the deaths, but it was later clarified that they were investigating the deaths on behalf of the coroner.

Questions have been raised on why tourists were allowed to visit the island after seismic monitoring experts raised the volcano's alert level last month.

"These questions must be asked and they must be answered," said Ms Ardern.

WORLD