New Zealand has marked one week since its White Island volcano tourism disaster with a minute's silence amid mounting queries over safety and liability. At 16, the death toll excludes two persons still missing.
Monday's pause for victims was led in cabinet rooms in Wellington by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and at Whakatane — the departure harbor town for White Island day outings — by rescue personnel and local Maori.
"Those who have been lost are now forever linked to New Zealand, and we hold them close," Ardern posted on social media as US embassy staff also stood with a flag at half-mast in Wellington.
Nine Americans were among the 47 people on White Island, otherwise known as Whakaari, when its crater vented fumes and hot ash last Monday, killing and maiming day-trippers, many of them also Australians from a passing cruise ship who reached it on board locally-run shuttle boats.
Victims identified so far as fatalities are eight Australians and two US citizens who had permanent residency in Australia.
As the Ovation of the Seas, run by Royal Caribbean Cruises, docked back in Sydney on Monday, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne was due to visit New Zealand.
"Our hearts go out to all of the families and loved ones of those affected," said Payne ahead of her trip.
She also thanked New Zealand recovery crews as well as burn specialists at Australian clinics treating 13 evacuated survivors. New Zealand clinics are still treating 14 people, 10 in critical condition.
Lawsuits, despite ACC system?
Despite New Zealand's "unique" Accident Compensation system that funds visitors' treatment but bars indemnity lawsuits, Reuters reported that US courts were likely to receive claims lodged on behalf of foreign injured and dead who made bookings abroad.
Royal Caribbean's potential liability toward passengers who made the outing — run as a local New Zealand tourist venture — could hinge on whether the eruption was an unforeseeable "act of God," maritime lawyers told Reuters.
RNZ, New Zealand's public radio on Monday published a detailed article entitled "Whakaari/White Island tourism: Who is responsible for what?" noting that last Monday's trips went ahead despite a volcanic alert level lifted to 2 on a 0-5 scale.
"A myriad of government agencies and regulators" were involved, said RNZ, while focusing on WorkSafe, New Zealand's regulator that also oversees tourism safety and regulations tightened since Pike River, a mining disaster in 2010 that claimed 29 lives.
The station noted, however, that ultimately "any restrictions on accessing the uninhabited island — an undersea volcano 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the mainland — would have been "up to the private owners."
Since 1936 the island has been owned by an Auckland family, reported the newspaper website Stuff last Tuesday. From 1953 onwards, it had been classified as a private scenic reserve.
Magma just below surface
New Zealand's geological agency GNS Science monitored the volcano and issued risk assessments but had "no ability to restrict access," said RNZ, quoting the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA).
The newspaper New Zealand Herald reported that scientists who made aerial flights over the volcano at the weekend had sighted "high temperature" gas venting, indicating "a shallow magma source within a few tens of meters below the surface."
ipj/dr (AFP, AP, Reuters)