Dec. 9 (UPI) — At least five people were dead and at least 10 others were missing after a volcano on a New Zealand island erupted Monday, authorities said.
New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims made the announcement during an evening press conference, stating that an unknown number of people were trapped on White Island and emergency crews were unable to come ashore due to safety concerns.
“Due to the current risk, emergency services are unable to access the island,” he said, adding the island was covered with ash and was too unstable for rescuers to attempt operations.
Tims said they believe fewer than 50 people were on or near White Island when it erupted and that 23 of them, including the five who died, were evacuated from the island, leaving an unknown number stranded.
Most of those involved were New Zealand and overseas passengers of the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, he said, adding that he couldn’t confirm how many people were still on White Island but that it was in the double digits.
All those evacuated suffered from injuries, some severe, he said, without elaborating.
“A number of people have burns as a result of the eruption,” he said. “It’s still too early to confirm how many people are involved.”
Some of the injured were transported from the island to Whakatane and Middlemore hospitals on the mainland, according to authorities.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed that Australians were among those on the island and was working “to determine their well being.”
“I have been in touch with [New Zealand Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern to offer our full support with whatever they need and our authorities are working closely together,” Morrison said via Twitter.
It was originally reported that 100 tourists were visiting the island when the volcano erupted, but police later decreased that number to 50.
The volcano on White Island erupted at 2:11 p.m., GeoNet said, describing the eruption as a “shortlived event” that generated an ash plume up to 12,000 feet above the vent.
The service decreased its Volcanic Alert Level from an initial reading of a 4 to a 3 on its 5-point scale, meaning it is a minor volcanic eruption posing a threat only near its vent.
“We do not expect more than a minor amount of ash to reach East Cape in the coming hours,” Duty Volcanologist Geoff Kilgour said in a statement, adding “we are aware that people were on the island immediately before the eruption and we express our concern for their safety.”
Ardern said during a press conference that police search and rescue was working with the National Emergency Management Agency to assist with the operation.
“All our thoughts are with those affected at this stage,” she said
The National Emergency Management Agency said it was assessing the situation to determine the severity of the threat, advising the public to seek safety information from local emergency services and to “act on it promptly.”
The New Zealand Police issued a warning for those living in or near ashfall areas to stay indoors.
“If caught in volcanic ashfalls: Wear a dust mask or use a cloth handkerchief over your nose and mouth; protect your eyes by wearing goggles. Wear eyeglasses, NOT contact lenses as fine ash will get under the lens,” it said in an advisory.
Known locally as Whakaari Island, the privately-owned White Island is home to the most active cone volcano in the nation and is visited by more than 10,000 people on day tours a year, according to GeoNet.