The Royal Caribbean cruise ship that was heavily impacted by the volcano that erupted in New Zealand last week arrived back in Sydney on Monday, but not before 24 passengers had been killed or injured in the violent blast, according to reports.
The White Island volcano, which erupted last Monday, has so far claimed the lives of 16 people, including teen brothers from Chicago. Another two people remain missing and are believed to be dead, CNN reported, as responders donning protective clothing returned Sunday to search for them. On Friday, a special team recovered six bodies from the island.
Authorities believe 47 people were on the island at the time of the eruption, including nine Americans. Many of the tourists on the island were passengers on the Royal Caribbean Ovation of the Seas cruise.
“They're people, people that went on my holiday of a lifetime that I've waited 50 years for and they never got to come home ... dreadful,” one passenger told the Daily Mail, adding that watching suitcases being carried off the ship “just broke my heart.”
Another passenger recalled hearing names called out on the ship’s PA system the night of the eruption, later realizing it was the names of the people who had gone on the tour of the volcano.
“The first day it was kind of like surreal, then the next morning it really started to hit,” she told the paper. “We stayed in Tauranga so it was in our faces all the time…seeing the police come on the ship and then off, it was very [somber], it just changed the whole mood of the ship.”
Following the eruption, the cruise, which had been scheduled to sail to Wellington that evening, remained docked in Tauranga. When it did finally set sail, it did so with flags at half-mast.
Flyers, which were obtained by the Daily Mail, were passed out to passengers offering mental health support on the final night of the cruise, which some passengers questioned the timing of.
A representative for Royal Caribbean told the Daily Mail the cruise company will continue to provide support to affected families.
“We would like to thank all the first responders and medical personnel. We also thank the Prime Ministers of Australia and New Zealand and their teams, the local authorities and everyone who has reached out to help with their kind words of support,” the representative said. “We thank our guests for their understanding in the days following this tragic event.”
As the search for the missing bodies continues, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern commemorated the “extraordinary tragedy” on Instagram, thanking the “many people who did extraordinary things to save lives.”
“There are almost no words for the stories of both the aftermath and the loss that has followed,” she wrote, adding: “Those who have been lost are now forever linked to New Zealand, and we will hold them close.”
The volcano called Whakaari, is the country’s most active. In the weeks before the explosion, New Zealand’s geological hazard monitoring system had been registering moderate unrest. About 10,000 tourists visit the uninhabited island each year.
In the days since the blast, experts have questioned why tourists were allowed to visit an active volcano in the first place. At the time of the fateful tour, the White Island was under a “Level 2” volcanic alert, the highest warning level for a volcano before it erupts.
Currently, the alert remains at a “Level 2,” CNN reported, which means there is a 30 percent to 40 percent chance of another similar eruption.