5 dead, many missing after New Zealand volcano erupts

5 dead, many missing after New Zealand volcano erupts

A file picture of New Zealand's most active volcano, Whakarri (White Island), in the Bay of Plenty, taken in 1999.
A file picture of New Zealand's most active volcano, Whakarri (White Island), in the Bay of Plenty, taken in 1999.

WELLINGTON: A New Zealand volcanic island erupted Monday in a tower of ash and steam while dozens of tourists were exploring the moon-like surface, killing five people and leaving many more missing.

The site was still too dangerous hours later for police and rescuers to search for the missing.

Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said the number of those who remained missing was in the double digits but he couldn't confirm an exact number. He said there were fewer than 50 people on the island when it erupted and 23 had been taken off, including the five dead.

Tims said experts had told them the island remained unstable but search and rescue teams wanted to get back as quickly as they could. He said there had been no contact with any of those who were missing.

He said both New Zealanders and overseas tourists were among those who were dead, missing or injured. He said most of the 18 who survived were injured and some had suffered severe burns.

Some of those involved were guests from the Royal Caribbean International cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

"A number of our guests were touring the island today," the company said. "We will offer all possible assistance to our guests and local authorities. Please keep all those affected in your prayers."

The cruise ship, which had left from Sydney last week, was scheduled to sail to the capital Wellington on Monday night but the company said it would instead remain in the Tauranga port overnight until it learned more on the situation.

"My god,'' wrote Michael Schade on Twitter as he posted video of the eruption. "My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable."

His video showed a wall of ash and steam around the island and a helicopter badly damaged and covered in ash. He said one woman was badly injured but seemed "strong'' by the end.

"It does appear to be a very significant issue, particularly the scale of those affected at this stage," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a press conference, 

New Zealand's geological hazard monitoring system, GeoNet, described the eruption as an "impulsive, short-lived event" that began at 2.11pm local time (8.11am in Thailand), sending an ash plume roughly 3,600 metres into the air.

White Island -- also known as Whakaari in the local indigenous Maori language -- is New Zealand's most active cone volcano, and is a popular tourist destination with a company offering daily tours of the site. GeoNet said about 70% of the volcano is under the sea.

The country's National Emergency Management Agency said a "moderate volcanic eruption is occurring at White Island and is hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the volcano." The agency raised its alert level to four, on a scale where five represents a major eruption.

White Island sits about 50 kilometres offshore from mainland New Zealand, northeast of the town of Tauranga on North Island, one of New Zealand's two main islands. Police were asking people to avoid areas on the North Island that were close to the eruption, including the Whakatane Heads and Muriwai Drive areas.

There will be questions asked as to why tourists were still able to visit the island after scientists recently noted an uptick in volcanic activity.

Twelve people were killed on the island in 1914 when it was being mined for sulphur. Part of a crater wall collapsed and a landslide destroyed the miners' village and the mine itself.

The remains of buildings from another mining enterprise in the 1920s are now a tourist attraction, according to GeoNet.

The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit the volcano every year.

Cameras providing a live feed from the volcano showed more than half a dozen people walking inside the rim at 2.10pm local time before images went dark.

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