New Zealand orders 1.2 million sq cm of skin from US to treat volcano patients

Alix Culbertson, news reporter

New Zealand has ordered 1.2 million sq cm of skin from America to treat patients suffering burns of up to 95% after Monday's volcano eruption.

Surgeons have been working around the clock on 29 patients in burns units across the country since the volcano suddenly erupted on White Island, off New Zealand's North Island.

Six people have been confirmed dead following the eruption, while two British women are believed to be among 30 in hospital.

The bodies of eight people are thought to be on the island as ever-increasing volcanic activity is preventing authorities from safely returning to it.

Due to the unprecedented numbers of burn victims at one time and the nature of their burns from toxic volcanic gases, surgeons are having to work quicker than usual, said Dr Peter Watson, clinical director at Middlemore Hospital where the national burns unit is.

He said 1.2 million sq cm of skin is coming from the United States as they "urgently need more skin grafts".

A number of patients have burns on up to 95% of their bodies, while the average is 40-50%, and 22 remain on airway support due to burns affecting their lungs.

A human body has approximately 2sqm (20sq ft) of skin, with the palm of a hand about 1.5% of a body's skin, doctors explained.

Surgeons estimated they have 500 hours of operations to do in the days and months ahead.

An Australian Defence Force aircraft is being sent to New Zealand to transfer some of the Australians involved to burns units closer to their homes.

One Australian national was being flown from Auckland by specialist air ambulance to Australia on Wednesday evening.

The other victims are from New Zealand, the UK, the US, Germany, China and Malaysia.

Dr Watson said doctors struggled to identify many of the patients at first as they were in surgery and many did not have ID on them, but most have been identified now.

Matthew Urey, from Virginia in the US, experienced burns over 80% of his body, while his wife, Lauren Urey, who he had just married, had burns over 20% of her body.

Experienced tour guide Hayden Marshal-Inman, from New Zealand, was the first person to have died to be publicly named as his brother, Mark, described him as a "lovely young man" who died doing what he loved.

On Wednesday afternoon, Australians Julie Richards, 47, and her daughter Jessica, 20, from Queensland were confirmed to have died.

Family friend John Mickel told Sky News Australia their family was informed by authorities early on Wednesday and the pair left for new Zealand last Monday and were due back home this weekend.

Police have also identified the remains of Gavin Dallow, while his stepdaughter Zoe Hosking is among the eight people officially named as missing.

"Our hearts break at the loss of Zoe at such a young age," the Dallow family said in a statement. "We mourn the loss of Gavin and Zoe."

The others unaccounted for include Jessica Richards (Australia); Krystal Browitt (Australia); Richard Elzer (Australia); Karla Matthews (Australia); Julie Richards (Australia) Tipene Maangi (New Zealand) and Hayden Inman (New Zealand).

Police said they are ready to get onto White Island to recover the remaining bodies as soon as they are given the go-ahead by volcanologists.

Graham Leonard, senior volcanologist at GNS Science, said the chance of an eruption like Monday's had risen to 40-60% on Wednesday evening, up from a 30-50% chance on Tuesday.

"Yesterday was high risk, today there is an even higher risk and the parameters are worsening," he said.

He said the ash and gas being emitted from the volcano mean rescue crews would struggle to breath and see.