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Tue. 8:56 a.m.: 6 dead from New Zealand volcano as helpers describe horror

A volcano erupted Monday on White Island, New Zealand. Unstable conditions continued to hamper rescue workers from searching for people missing and feared dead after the volcano off the New Zealand coast erupted in a towering blast of ash and scalding steam while dozens of tourists explored its moon-like surface. (Michael Schade via AP)

WHAKATANE, New Zealand (AP) — Survivors of a powerful volcanic eruption in New Zealand ran into the sea to escape the scalding steam and ash and emerged covered in burns, say those who first helped them.

The accounts today came as some relatives were forced to continue waiting for news of their loved ones, with authorities deciding it remained too dangerous for crews to land on the island and remove bodies.

Six deaths were confirmed after Monday’s eruption of the White Island volcano. Five people died at the time of the blast or soon after, while a sixth person died today at an Auckland hospital.

Another eight people are believed to have died, with their bodies remaining on the ash-covered island for now.

Experts said there was a 50 percent chance of another small eruption within a day and rescue teams didn’t want to take any chances. Police said they planned to send up drones to measure whether gas levels were safe.

The tragedy will have an ongoing effect on the town of Whakatane, which road signs tout as the gateway to White Island. As well as being an important tourist draw for the 20,000 people who live here, the volcano has an almost mystical significance, its regular puffing a feature of the landscape.

Whether the island will ever host tourists again remains uncertain after the horrific tragedy that unfolded when the volcano exploded a little after 2 p.m. Monday.

Geoff Hopkins was in a boat offshore after visiting the island with his daughter, the tour a 50th birthday present for him. He told the New Zealand Herald the eruption at first looked beautiful but quickly turned menacing.

As injured people were transported onto their boat screaming in pain, Hopkins and his daughter Lillani poured fresh water onto them, cut them out of their clothes and tried to keep them calm.

He told the Herald they were “horrifically” burned on their exposed skin and faces, even under their clothes.

In all, police believe there were 47 visitors on the island at the time. They say 24 were Australian, nine were American and five were New Zealanders. Others were from Germany, Britain, China and Malaysia. Many were passengers aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

About 30 of the survivors remained hospitalized today, many flown to burn units around the country. The first confirmed death was of a local man, Hayden Marshall-Inman, a guide who had shown tourists around the island.

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