A Sydney private school has confirmed brothers Matthew and Berend Hollander have died in hospital after Monday’s fatal volcano eruption on New Zealand’s White Island, raising the death toll to eight.
The bodies of eight victims presumed dead are still on White Island, and the official death toll is expected to rise from eight to 16. More than two dozen people are in hospital, many in a critical condition with burn injuries.
Berend (known as ‘Ben’), who was in Year 10 at Knox Grammar School, and Matthew, who was in Year 8, were on a family holiday with their parents Martin and Barbara Hollander, who the school said are still unaccounted for.
The two boys and their mum were born in the US and moved to Sydney from Chicago six years ago.
The family said in a statement, released through the school, they “are absolutely heartbroken by this loss.”
“Ben and Matthew were wonderfully kind and spirited boys who lived short but very fulsome lives. They loved Knox and all their friends, and the Australian sports and outdoor lifestyle they adopted on moving from the United States,” the statement said.
“They had a positive and lasting impact on everyone’s paths they crossed. The family requests privacy at this difficult time.”
Knox Headmaster Scott James reflected on his “enthusiastic” students in the following statement provided to HuffPost Australia.
“Matthew was a vibrant member of the Class of 2023. He was involved in Cadets and represented the School in Basketball, Squash and Debating. He was elected as a Mentor Representative in 2018/19. Matthew had a close circle of friends and was popular amongst his peers. He was always enthusiastic about life and was actively involved in school and year group activities.
Ben was actively engaged in sports and co-curricular activities at Knox, developing a passion for AFL, Cadets, CRU and his biggest passion, Baseball. He had a great love for the outdoors and camp. Ben was a compassionate and enthusiastic student, with an interest in software design. Ben’s engaging smile and quirky sense of humour made him a good mate to his close group of friends and a welcome member to every classroom.”
Police in New Zealand are planning to go to the volcanic White Island on Friday to retrieve bodies of people killed in this week’s eruption, after it was previously deemed “highly volatile” and too risky to send in recovery teams.
“I can now confirm that we are finalising a plan to recover the bodies from Whakaari/ White Island tomorrow morning,” police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said in a statement on Thursday, adding families will be briefed on the operation.
“We are now living with a growing sense of desperation to bring home those that we know are there and those we love,” Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner told reporters earlier. “The frustration of those families most affected is completely understandable. No news is not good news for people in this situation.”
The volcano, a popular tourist day-tripper destination, erupted on Monday, spewing ash and steam over the island.
There were 47 people on the island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, at the time of the eruption. Twenty-four of those were from Australia, nine from the United States, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and Britain and one from Malaysia.
Earlier on Nico Fournier, a volcanologist at New Zealand’s geological science agency GNS Science, said monitoring equipment still active on the island put the risk of a further eruption over the next 24 hours at 50% to 60%.
“We believe that there is shallow magma, the molten rocks, which is driving the activity under the surface ... which is the level of tremor that is increasing, and it keeps increasing as we speak as well,” Fournier told reporters.
“The consequence of those processes is that the situation remains highly volatile,” he said.
In the event of another eruption, anybody on the island could be “pummelled to death” by flying rocks or overcome by ash and gases in temperatures exceeding hundreds of degrees celsius, Fournier said.
New Zealand Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Clement had said the risk of both another eruption and toxic gases were simply too great to expose recovery teams, although the situation was being constantly reviewed.
“I don’t have a plan that satisfies me that the risk is able to be mitigated ... to keep people safe,” Clement told reporters. “I can’t give an assurance around a timeline because the reality is I don’t control all of the factors yet.”
Many of the injured are being treated for severe burns, and medical officials are importing some 1.2 million square cm of skin. The amount of skin needed equates to about 60 donors. In New Zealand, only five to 10 people donate skin each year, the New Zealand Herald newspaper reported.
Teams of surgeons in several burns units around the country were working around the clock.
“It’s one of the most challenging things to look at because you know the patients are in so much pain and will be fighting for their life for the next two or three weeks and even then they could die,” John Bonning, president of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, told the newspaper.
The Australian government was in the process on Wednesday of transferring up to 10 injured citizens from overloaded burns units in New Zealand.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said there will be an inquiry into the tragedy, which will also look more broadly at issues including access to volcanic sites across New Zealand.
Daily tours bring more than 10,000 visitors to privately owned White Island every year, marketed as “the world’s most accessible active marine volcano”.
Geological hazards agency GeoNet raised the alert level for the volcano in November because of an increase in volcanic activity. The alert level was increased further after the eruption.
Geonet reduced the level on Thursday because there has not been any further eruptions activity since Monday’s fatal eruption, but the agency cautioned that the “likelihood of future eruptive activity in the next 24 hours remains” as volcanic tremors increased to “very high levels” overnight.
Charlotte Greenfield and Jane Wardell contributed to this report.