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New Zealand needs 1.2 million square centimetres of skin to help volcano victims

The volcano on White Island, New Zealand erupts. Credit: AP

Burns specialists in New Zealand need 1.2 million square centimetres of skin to meet patient demands, as the operation to recover victims from the volcano blast has been delayed by worsening conditions.

Skin graphs the size of a fifth of a football pitch penalty box are needed by doctors due to the severity of the survivor's burns from White Island.

At least six people were killed by the blast and monitoring agency GeoNet said further eruptions on White Island were “likely”, adding the level of “volcanic tremor has significantly increased”.

Two British women are believed to be among the 30 people in hospital, with all but five in a stable but serious condition.

Counties Manukau District Health Board’s chief medical officer Dr Peter Watson 22 patients were on airway support “due to the severity of their burns and other injuries”.

Police said it was “too dangerous” to return to the island at the moment owing to the “serious physical and chemical hazards” rescuers would face.

A woman places flowers on a fence at the waterfront in Whakatane, New Zealand. Credit: AP

Meanwhile, the British High Commission in New Zealand has urged Britons travelling in the country to contact their family and friends to let them know they are safe.

It comes as:

  • Doctors in New Zealand have “almost” completed full identification of the 30 patients in burns units
  • New Zealand’s Civil Defence ministry said it was “absolutely imperative” to retrieve the bodies, but “the prevention of further human harm must be taken into account”
  • Chief coroner Judge Deborah Marshall has declared the White Island eruption a “mass fatality incident” and said it could be “some weeks” before all the deceased are identified
  • The first Australian victims of the eruption have been named by a family friend as Julie Richards, 47, and her 20-year-old daughter Jessica
Bouquets of flowers sit on one of the two tour boats that went to White Island on December 9 in Whakatane, New Zealand. Credit: Mark Baker/AP

Lillani Hopkins, a 22-year-old student who has studied volcanoes, was on the island with her father Geoff when the eruption took place.

She helped those injured, pouring water on them and rinsing their mouths and cleaning burns.

She revealed how some people were so badly injured that paramedics were unable to find their veins.

An elderly couple from Australia had become separated, with the wife unable to move, so Ms Hopkins found the husband and led him by the hand back to her.

Lillani Hopkins helped those injured on the island. Credit: Lillani Hopkins via AP

Counties Manukau District Health Board’s chief medical officer Dr Peter Watson told reporters that 22 patients were on airway support “due to the severity of their burns and other injuries”.

He added that supplies – including an additional 1.2 million square centimetres of skin – would be needed to meet patient demand and will be ordered from the United States.

This is equivalent size to a fifth of a penalty area on a football pitch.

“The nature of the burns suffered is complicated by the gases and chemicals in the eruption.”

The alert level of a further eruption is at three, on a scale of one to five.

Graham Leonard, of the Institute of Geological and Nuclear sciences, said conditions on the island are worsening.

He added: “There are two key risks (on the ground). One: environmental. This is highly wind varying, but at times it will be challenging for breathing, seeing or walking on the island, and at other times clear.

“Second of all, there is the risk of another eruption like Monday’s eruption while on the island.’

Coroner Deborah Marshall and acting assistant police commissioner Bruce Bird address a press conference in Whakatane, New Zealand. Credit: Nick Perry/AP

He said the risk of a further eruption in the next 24 hours like that seen on Monday had increased to 40-60% from 30-50%.

National operation Commander Deputy Commissioner John Tims said: “The environment on the island has changed, (there has been) increased activity from earlier this morning.

“We are standing by to go back to that island.

“We are confident on our ability to deliver the rescue operation. But that is after we are sure that we can manage the real dangers that are on the island.”

Ms Marshall said the coroner’s office would work with pathologists, disaster specialists and odontologists to identify victims and return them to their families.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, right, meets first responders in Whakatane. Credit: Dom Thomas/AP

She said: “The highest standards are set to ensure the victims are correctly identified and returned to their loved ones.

“We will gather information from post-mortem examinations, and also any ante-mortem information to ensure people are identified correctly.

“Depending on how long it takes to retrieve the deceased from the island, it could be some weeks before all the deceased are identified.”

The dead are thought to be buried beneath piles of ash, with most of the 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption believed to be from Australia.

Many were passengers aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, including Julie Richards and her daughter Jessica.

Family friend John Mickel told reporters: “You obviously live in hope that’s it not going to be your loved one’s name that comes up, but the hope was snuffed out this morning with the message from the New Zealand police.”

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told parliament the “scale of this tragedy is devastating”.

“We know, too, there will be bigger questions in relation to this event. These questions must be asked and they must be answered,” she said.

“But our focus now is on discharging our duty of care to support those affected and that is also the focus of the police.”

White Island, also known by the Maori name Whakaari, is the tip of an undersea volcano 30 miles off the coast.

Scientists had noted an increase in volcanic activity in recent weeks, leading to questions as to why tourists were still being allowed on the island.