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At Least 5 Dead After Volcano Erupts Off New Zealand's Coast

Smoke billows from White Island after a volcanic eruption on Monday. Officials say some people remain unaccounted for and it remains too dangerous for emergency services to access the island.
George Novak

Updated at 5:39 p.m. ET

At least five people are dead and eight others remain unaccounted for after an eruption on a volcanic island off the coast of New Zealand on Monday, local officials have confirmed.

New Zealand Police say 47 people were on or near White Island — about 30 miles off the coast of New Zealand's North Island — when the volcano erupted just after 2 p.m. local time. But officials said it remains too dangerous for emergency services to access the island and search for those missing.

"We are continuing to work as quickly as possible, through a number of channels of information, to confirm exact numbers of those involved, including those who remain on the island," New Zealand Police said in a statement Monday.

In a later alert, New Zealand Police said 31 patients were being treated at seven hospitals. Three people who received treatment have been discharged from Whakatane Hospital.

The Guardian reports 23 people have been rescued. It also reports:

" 'No signs of life have been seen at any point,' police said after rescue helicopters and other aircraft had carried out a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island following the eruption on Monday afternoon. 'Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation.' "

New Zealand officials continue to receive advice from scientists about when it will be safe for first responders to resume search operations.

"Due to the current risk environment, emergency services remain unable to access the island," the statement said. "We are reassessing as information and advice is received, however Police will not be in a position to access the island tonight."

The New Zealand Defence Force said it was "sending a number of NZDF assets and personnel to assist in the emergency response following the eruption on White Island," according to a statement. In a separate tweet, it said a New Zealand aircraft had carried out surveillance flights and two NH90 helicopters had been dispatched to the coastal town of Whakatane to offer support.

Reporting from Manila, Philippines, NPR's Julie McCarthy says White Island has New Zealand's most active volcano.

"The eruption sent a plume of steam and ash 12,000 feet high and affected the entire crater floor, according to a volcanologist from the research group GNS Science," McCarthy said. "Questions are rising over why tourists, who come to explore White Island's moonlike surface, were still being allowed to visit. In recent weeks, scientists reportedly noted an uptick in volcanic activity — observing substantial gas, steam and mud bursts at the vent."

People injured during the volcanic eruption are ferried into waiting ambulances in Whakatane.
Katee Shanls / AP
People injured during the volcanic eruption are ferried into waiting ambulances in Whakatane.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted Monday that he had spoken "several times" with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern but acknowledged "there is still no comprehensive or confirmed information about the well-being of those who were impacted by the volcano eruption."

He added there were 24 Australians visiting the island with a cruise ship tour.

"It will take some time for us to get a clear indication and we must be patient," Morrison said.

The New Zealand Herald reports the eight missing people are presumed dead and noted some of the victims were tourists from the United Kingdom, the United States, China and Malaysia. It also reports, "some of the injured have burns to 90 per cent of their bodies and a source said they may not survive the horrific injuries."

One of those killed was a man from Whakatane, according to the paper, which described him as "an experienced guide for White Island Tours." Whakatane's former mayor, Tony Bonne, described him as a "young energetic man who's lost his life," reports the New Zealand Herald.

The BBC reports tourists were walking inside the crater moments before Monday's eruption.

One visitor, Michael Schade, posted a Twitter thread with videos and photos of a thick grayish-white plume billowing from White Island. He said he and his family had narrowly escaped the destruction.

"My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001," Schade tweeted. "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."

MetService, a weather forecaster in New Zealand, tweeted satellite images of the plume from the volcanic eruption.

New Zealand's National Emergency Management Agency issued an alert Monday describing the eruption as an "impulsive, shortlived event" that looks to have diminished.

It notes, "ash has covered the main crater floor as seen in our webcam images. Ash fall appears to be confined to the island and we do not expect more than a minor amount of ash to reach East Cape in the coming hours."

At a news briefing Monday, Ken Gledhill of GeoNet said the volcano "had showed increased activity for the last few weeks," causing authorities to raise the alert level.

He described the event as "almost like a throat-clearing eruption," adding, "on the scheme of things, for volcanic eruptions, its not large, but if you are close to that, it is not good."

Ardern was questioned at the news conference about why tourists were permitted to visit the island given the increased risk for eruption.

She declined to answer and spoke instead about the search efforts.

"You'll appreciate in this moment in time, the absolute focus needs to be the search and rescue operation," Ardern said. "There will be a time and a place to undertake further assessments. Now we have to focus on allowing the police to do their job."

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Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.