WELLINGTON: New Zealanders across the country observed a minute of silence on Monday (Dec 16) to honour the victims of last week's fatal volcanic eruption.
The official death toll from the surprise eruption on White Island, also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, stands at 16. Two people whose bodies are believed to be in the waters around the island are still officially listed as missing.
A further 26 people remain in hospitals in New Zealand and Australia, many in critical condition with severe burn injuries.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern led Monday's minute of silence, standing alongside her ministers in Wellington's distinctive "Beehive" parliament building.
"Those who have been lost are now forever linked to New Zealand, and we will hold them close," Ardern posted on her official Instagram account.
The United States embassy in Wellington posted a photograph on Twitter of its staff, with heads bowed, before a US flag flying at half-mast.
Recovery teams who retrieved six bodies from the island on Friday, have so far been unsuccessful in locating the final two bodies despite several hours of searching over the weekend.
POTENTIAL CRIMINAL PENALTIES
Ardern said on Monday that official inquiries into last week's fatal volcano eruption could take up to a year, and will carry potential criminal penalties of up to five years in jail.
"There remains now questions to be asked and questions to be answered," Ardern told reporters in Wellington after she led the country in a minute of silence for the dead and injured.
The volcano, a popular destination for day-trippers, erupted last Monday, spewing ash, steam and gases over the island. The 47 people on the island when it erupted included 24 Australian citizens and four permanent residents, as well as others from the US, Germany, China, the UK and Malaysia.
There has been growing criticism that people were allowed on the island, a popular destination for day-trippers, given the risks of an active volcano. That has led to speculation the tragedy could foretell major changes for New Zealand's thrillseeker tourism economy.
WorkSafe, New Zealand's primary regulator for workplace related incidents, has opened a health and safety investigation, Ardern said, while the coroner is conducting a separate inquiry.
Worksafe can prosecute individuals and companies for breaches of health and safety laws, with penalties including fines of up to NZ$3 million and jail terms of up to five years, Ardern said.
A coronial investigation is automatically triggered in the event of a sudden, violent or unnatural death. A coroner can also make recommendations to prevent similar deaths in the future.
Ardern said the Worksafe investigation could take a year, while the coronial inquiry was "also likely to continue for some time".
Ardern also announced a NZ$5 million ($3.2 million) fund to help small businesses affected by the eruption.
The NZ$5 million support fund is expected to be distributed among businesses in Whakatane, the mainland coastal town that serves as the jumping off point for trips to Whakaari. Asked if operators of tours to the island would be among the beneficiaries, Ardern said that specifics had not yet been determined.
At White Island, recovery teams again conducted aerial searches in a bid to locate the bodies of the last two people known to have been on the island.
Six bodies were retrieved from the island on Friday, and officials believe the remaining two bodies are now likely to be in the surrounding waters. Naval divers are scheduled to continue the search on Tuesday.
"We will continue the operation for as long as we have a chance of recovering those bodies," New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush told Radio New Zealand.
Many of dead and injured were Australians on a day tour to White Island from a Royal Caribbean Cruises' ship that launched its tour of New Zealand's famed sounds or fjords, lakes and volcanoes earlier this month from Sydney.
The 16-deck Ovation of the Seas docked back in Sydney on Monday, with some passengers disembarking in tears as they were reunited with family members.
"So happy to be home," Australian tourist Jo Anne Anderson told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. "There are dead people, people who went on a trip of a lifetime, and they haven't come home. It is dreadful."
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with her New Zealand counterpart in Wellington on Monday to express Australia's thanks to emergency and medical crews.
Legal experts said last week they expected to see lawsuits filed in the US courts by injured passengers and families of those who died.
Royal Caribbean Cruises's potential liability for the deadly excursion could hinge on whether the eruption was an unforeseeable "act of God", maritime lawyers told reporters.
A spokeswoman for the company declined to comment on criticisms from some passengers about the excursion and the cruise line's handling of the aftermath of the tragedy.
"We will to continue to provide ongoing support and services to them and their families during this difficult time," the spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.