White Island volcano eruption: dozens missing after fatal incident in New Zealand

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White Island Volcano

Fewer than 50 people were on or near the island at the time of the eruption

One person is dead and as many as 27 people are unaccounted for after New Zealand’s White Island volcano erupted on Monday, with police and emergency services unable to search the island for the missing due to unstable conditions, toxic gases and ash fall.

The country’s most active cone volcano erupted at 2.11pm Monday afternoon sending up a huge plume of ash that was visible from the east coast of the North Island.

Police said about 50 people were on the island at the time of the eruption. In a press conference in Wellington, deputy commissioner of district operations John Tims said 23 people had been taken rescued off the island. One person had died and 20 were being treated for their injuries, largely burns. Seven people remain in a critical condition and had been flown to hospitals in Tauranga and Auckland.

Prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who was en route to Whakatāne on Monday evening, said the situation was “significant and evolving” and a number of people remain “unaccounted for”.

Ardern said she was liaising closely with the ministry of foreign affairs, and police confirmed those those missing on the island were New Zealanders and foreign nationals.

The Australian prime minister Scott Morrison, said Australians had been “caught up” in the disaster and offered emergency support.

Kevin O’Sullivan, the chief executive officer of the New Zealand Cruise Association said a tour party of between 30 to 38 people from the Ovation of the Seas was touring White Island when the eruption took place, and the party had not returned. Their names and nationalities were being handed over to New Zealand police, he said. The ship would remain in Tauranga port at least overnight.

Royal Caribbean, which owns the Ovation of the Seas, asked for “prayers” for all involved.

Ardern said an active police search and rescue was underway, but police said they were unable to land on the island due to the danger of another eruption and dangerous conditions on the ground.

Tims said “there is a number still remaining on the island who are currently unaccounted for,” and there had already been one fatality.

Based on the current information police had “there is likely to be more”, he said.

“We are working to confirm the numbers involved. At this stage, it is too dangerous for police and rescue services to go to the island. However, we continue to assess the conditions which would allow us to go onto the island.”

“The island is currently covered in ash and volcanic material. We are taking expert advice with regards to the safety of any rescue attempt.”

Michael Schade, an American tourist, had just returned from the crater to a tour boat with his parents when the volcano erupted. When their boat returned to pick up survivors, some were in shock, and others burned; “to different levels of severity,” he said

“We were all busy the entire time, just trying to stay out of the way of people who knew what they were doing and also just to help out wherever we could,” he said of the return trip.

Passengers handed over jackets and shirts, eye drops and water, and a human chain was formed to refill bottles so the injured could pour it on their burns. Those who weren’t hurt also comforted those who were.

“We kept telling people that we were getting closer and then realising we actually weren’t that close,” he said.

Dr Ken Glairdhill from GNS Science said the volcano was unpredictable, and they could not ensure it would not erupt again within the next 24 hours.

“It was not a particularly big eruption,” Glairdhill said of Monday’s event. “It was almost like a throat-clearing eruption.”

“It showed increased activity for the last few weeks, so we raised the alert level.”

A level four alert was issued for the volcano, also known by its Māori name Whakaari, indicating a “moderate volcanic eruption,” according to the science agency GeoNet. The scale runs from zero to five – a major eruption.

St John Ambulance treated at least 20 people who were injured, with ambulance officers traveling to the island with the coast guard and seven helicopters who had also been dispatched with paramedics on board.

A spokeswoman initially said the service’s medical director would establish a triage unit on the island when he arrived, but this later proved to be impossible.

The damaged helicopter shown in footage belongs to Volcanic Air, a tour company based in Rotorua. The pilot and four passengers were unharmed and returned to the mainland via boat on Monday afternoon, a company spokesman said.

Whakaari volcano erupts on Monday. Photograph: Twitter

“Volcanic Air has confirmed it had a helicopter on Whakaari/White Island at the time it erupted this afternoon,” a spokesman said.

“Five people had flown to the island in the helicopter, but all are accounted for and have arrived back in Whakatane by boat.”

The news outlet Stuff reported that footage taken from the volcano’s crater camera appeared to show people in the area minutes before it erupted.

About 10,000 people a year visit the volcano.

People injured in the White Island volcanic eruption are ferried into waiting ambulances in Whakatane Photograph: Katee Shanls/AP

The civil defence authority warned that the situation was hazardous “in the immediate vicinity of the volcano”, which is 48km off the coast of the Bay of Plenty, a tourist hot-spot. After the eruption the police blocked streets close to the water, and the MetService weather agency warned the local aviation community to avoid the area by plane.

White Island last experienced a short-lived eruption in 2016, in which no one was hurt.

Geological hazard trackers GeoNet had registered moderate volcanic unrest on the island for weeks, before Monday afternoon’s eruption.

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