As many as 13 people may have died following a volcanic eruption on New Zealand’s White Island, while dozens more were injured after two explosions sent plumes of white smoke and ash thousands of meters into the air.
Five people are confirmed dead and eight are missing presumed dead after the eruption yesterday afternoon, police said early Tuesday. Another 31 people are being treated at hospitals across the country — some with critical burns — and three have been discharged. In total 47 people, many of them tourists, were on the island, which is about 48 kilometers (30 miles) off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island.
“The missing or injured include New Zealanders as well as tourists from Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference Tuesday. There have been a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island and “no signs of life have been seen at any point,” she said.
Ardern paid tribute to first responders and helicopter pilots who flew to rescue survivors.
“As a result of their efforts a number of people were rescued from the island,” she said. “However it is now clear there were two groups on the island — those who were able to be evacuated and those who were close to the eruption.”
Police are working with experts to determine when it will be safe to return to the island to recover the missing, Superintendent Bruce Bird told reporters. A navy ship has been deployed to approach the perimeter of the island at first light to deploy drones and observational equipment to further assess the environment.
At a news conference in Sydney, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said there were 24 Australians on the island tour, and three are believed to be among the five people confirmed dead. The others are either in hospital or remain unaccounted for.
“This is a very hard day for a lot of Australian families,” he said.
Many of the tourists visiting White Island were from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, which was berthed at the Port of Tauranga on Monday. Operator Royal Caribbean confirmed some of its guests were touring the island and said it was working with authorities in the aftermath of the tragedy.
The eruption at 2:11 p.m. yesterday created an ash plume some 3.6 kilometers high, government agency GeoNet said. The volcanic alert level was immediately raised to four, one notch below its top reading, before being reduced to three, GeoNet said.
Questions are being asked about why tourists were allowed onto White Island, which attracts more than 10,000 visitors a year, when the alert level was in recent weeks raised to two, signaling “moderate to heightened volcanic unrest.”
“We will ensure that the appropriate authorities do answer all of those questions,” Ardern told Television New Zealand. “But today, the focus is on providing critical care for those who have been injured, making sure that the police have the best information that they can to make those decisions around recovery and when that can occur.”
New Zealand sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a belt of volcanic and seismic activity that rings the Pacific Ocean. The latest tragedy follows a devastating earthquake in the South Island city of Christchurch in 2011 that killed 185 people. The nation is still reeling from a terrorist attack on two Christchurch mosques in March this year that killed 51 worshippers.
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