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New Zealand volcano erupts: Five killed and several tourists missing

At least five people have died after a volcano erupted in New Zealand.

Police say the number of people who are unaccounted for following the eruption on White Island is in double figures – but the rescue operation has been suspended because it is too dangerous to search the area.

Approximately 50 people, New Zealanders and foreign tourists among them, were feared to have been nearby when the eruption happened at 2.11pm local time on Monday (1.11am UK time).

Volcano on White Island in New Zealand erupts. Pic: GeoNet
Image: The GeoNet agency said a moderate volcanic eruption had occurred at around 2.11pm. Pic: GeoNet

A webcam showed people (centre of picture) hiking in the crater just moments before the eruption
Image: A webcam showed people (centre of picture) hiking in the crater just moments before the eruption

Several people were seen near the rim of the crater in the minutes before the sudden eruption.

A total of 23 people were rescued – including the five who died – and some of those transferred to hospital have “severe” burns.

Some of those involved are believed to be from Ovation of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean International cruise ship.

Officers are hoping to locate the people who are unaccounted for through the cruise ship’s passenger list. So far, there has been no contact with any of those who were missing.

A spokesperson from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said: “We are in close contact with the New Zealand authorities following the volcanic eruption on Whakaari/White Island and are seeking further information.”

The eruption threw an ash plume about 12,000ft (3,658m) high, New Zealand's geoscience agency GNS Science said. Pic: GeoNet
Image: The eruption threw an ash plume about 3,658m (12,000ft) high. Pic: GeoNet

The eruption is not expected to have a significant impact on New Zealand’s North Island – one of the country’s two main islands – which is about 30 miles (50km) west of White Island.

Earlier, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the incident appeared to be “very significant”, adding: “A number of people are reportedly injured and are being transported to shore.”

The GeoNet agency said the volcanic eruption was moderate – throwing smoke and debris about 3,600m (12,000ft) into the air.

It raised its alert level to four, on a scale where five represents a major eruption.

Injured people are taken back to the mainland
Image: Injured people are taken back to the mainland

Dr Ken Gledhill, technical adviser at GNS Science, said it was “not a particularly big eruption” and was “almost like a throat clearing kind of eruption which is why material won’t make it to the mainland”.

He added: “For volcanic eruptions it’s not large, but if you were close it’s not good.

“It’s shown increased activity over the past few weeks so we raised the alert.

“We can’t be certain there won’t be another eruption in the next 24 hours.”

Several people have been injured
Image: Some of those injured are feared to have suffered ‘severe’ burns

Video shows a helicopter on the ground, damaged from the ash cloud. Pic: Twitter/ @Sch
Image: A helicopter on the ground, damaged from the ash cloud. Pic: Twitter/@Sch

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

A spokesperson for Royal Caribbean said: “We can confirm that a number of our guests were touring the island today. We do not have any additional details to share at this time.”

Tour guides evacuate the island after the eruption. Pic: Twitter/ @sch
Image: Tour guides evacuate the island after the eruption. Pic: Twitter/@sch

People have been told to leave the island. Pic: Twitter/ @sch
Image: People have been told to leave the island. Pic: Twitter/@sch

Police have told people to avoid areas on North Island that are close to the eruption, including the Whakatane Heads and Muriwai Drive areas. A no-fly zone has also been established.

Footage from the scene shows walls of ash and smoke rising from the island, as well as a helicopter damaged in the eruption.

White Island, also known by the indigenous Maori name Whakaari, is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano – and about 70% of the volcano is under the sea.

Officers are hoping to locate the people who are unaccounted for through the passenger list from the cruise ship where many of the tourists had come from.
NZ volcano: ‘Too dangerous to go to island’

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.

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