Volcano probe 'may take a year and lead to jail terms'
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said yesterday 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.
Ms Ardern also announced a NZ$5m (€2.8m) fund to help small businesses affected by the eruption, after New Zealanders held a minute of silence to honour the victims a week on from the tragedy.
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.
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"There remains now questions to be asked and questions to be answered," said Ms Ardern after she led the country in a minute of silence.
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, Ms Ardern said, while the coroner is conducting a separate inquiry.
Worksafe can prosecute individuals and firms for breaches of health and safety laws, with penalties including fines of up to NZ$3m (€1.8m) and jail terms of up to five years.
Ms Ardern said the Worksafe investigation could take a year, while the coroner's inquiry was "also likely to continue for some time".