Fewer than 50 visitors were on or near White Island, which is also known as Whakaari, at the time of the eruption, and 23 people have been rescued so far, New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said a media briefing Monday night. Among the people transported to shore, many had burn injuries and a number were taken to area hospitals, Tims said. He confirmed that five people have died and said he didn’t know how many people are still unaccounted for, estimating that figure to be in the “double digits.”
“The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island,” Tims said. “It is important that we consider the health and safety of those that are going to rescue those on the island.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters at an earlier news conference that both New Zealanders and foreign visitors were on or near the island when the volcano erupted at 2:11 p.m. White Island is located roughly 30 miles from New Zealand’s North Island in the Bay of Plenty. It is uninhabited, but is frequented by tourists.
“I know there will be a huge amount of concern and anxiety for those who have loved ones on or around the island at the time, and I can assure them police are doing everything they can,” said Ardern, who noted that she will be traveling to the island Monday night along with New Zealand’s Minister of Civil Defence, Peeni Henare.
A number of visitors to the island during the eruption came from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship, which is visiting the nearby city of Tauranga. In a statement to The Washington Post, the New Zealand Cruise Association’s CEO Kevin O’Sullivan extended “heartfelt concern to the passengers and their families.”
The eruption, described by GNS Science’s Ken Gledhill as a “throat-clearing kind of eruption,” released ash 12,000 meters above the island.
“On the scheme of things for volcanic eruptions, it’s not large, but if you were close to that, it is not good,” Gledhill said at the news conference. Photos of the volcano’s crater rim minutes before the eruption showed people walking nearby, the New Zealand Herald reported.
One video taken of the eruption from a boat offshore captured thick clouds rising from the island. A voice could be heard frantically telling passengers to go inside the boat’s cabin. In another clip, the island appeared to be completely enveloped by ash.
My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001. 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. #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/QJwWi12Tvt
— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
On Twitter Monday afternoon, New Zealand’s National Emergency Management Agency warned that it continues to be “hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the volcano” and urged people to pay attention to detailed safety advice, adding, “Act on it promptly.”
A volcanic eruption is occurring at White Island and is hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the volcano.
— National Emergency Management Agency (@NZcivildefence) December 9, 2019
White Island bills itself as “New Zealand’s most active volcano,” according to its official website, which advertises a “fully-guided exploration” of the volcano’s inner crater complex as a “must-do experience.” The island’s last eruption occurred in 2016, but no one was hurt, according to the Guardian.
In the weeks before Monday’s incident, GeoNet, an agency that provides geological hazard information for New Zealand, issued multiple reports of “volcanic unrest” on the island.
“Moderate volcanic unrest continues at Whakaari/White Island, with substantial gas, steam and mud bursts observed at the vent located at the back of the crater lake,” stated a report from last Tuesday.
During Monday’s news conference, Ardern declined to answer a question about whether visitors should have been allowed to go to the island given the recent increase in volcanic activity.
“In this moment in time, the absolute focus needs to be the search and rescue operation,” she said. “There will be a time and a place to undertake further assessments. Now, we have to focus on allowing the police to do their job and focus on those who were in the vicinity of the island at the time.”
Emanuel Stoakes in Christchurch, NZ contributed to this report.