By Associated Press
WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — 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.
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.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was traveling to the region late Monday. She said the incident was “very significant.”
“All our thoughts are with those affected,” she said.
Brad Scott, a volcanologist with GNS Science, said the eruption was significant and sent a plume of steam and ash about 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) into the air. He said it had also affected the whole of the White Island crater floor.
The GeoNet agency raised its alert level to four, on a scale where five represents a major eruption. It later dropped the alert level back down to three. Scott said that was because the eruption wasn’t sustained beyond the initial blast.
White Island sits about 50 kilometers (30 miles) offshore from mainland New Zealand. 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.
GeoNet raised the alert level on White Island from one to two on Nov. 18, noting an increase in the amount of sulfur dioxide gas, which originates from magma deep in the volcano. It also said at the time that over the previous weeks, the volcanic tremor had increased from weak to moderate strength.
White Island sits about 50 kilometers (30 miles) offshore from mainland New Zealand. Already people are questioning why tourists were still able to visit the island after scientists recently noted an uptick in volcanic activity.