WELLINGTON: At least five people were killed and up to 20 injured in New Zealand after the White Island volcano erupted suddenly off the east coast of its North Island on Monday (Dec 9).
Several people were still missing more than 10 hours after the eruption, but New Zealand police have said they did not expect to find any more survivors.
"No signs of life have been seen at any point," the police said in a statement after rescue helicopters and other aircraft had carried out a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island.
"Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation,"
Around 50 people, including cruise passengers and foreigners, were believed to be on or around White Island at the time it erupted.
Twenty-three people, some of them believed to be tourists from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship, were rescued.
There were particular fears for a group of visitors who were seen walking on the crater floor moments before the eruption occurred.
Earlier on Monday, deputy police commissioner John Tims had said police could not contact a group of at least 10 people who remained on the island after the eruption, revealing "we're unsure of their wellbeing".
Rescue services were unable to reach White Island as it remained too dangerous after the eruption.
"At this stage, it is too dangerous for police and rescue services to go to the island ... The island is currently covered in ash," he added.
The police had also said they did not have any communication with anyone on White Island.
The volcanic island - also known as Whakaari - had erupted around 2.10pm (9.10am Singapore time ), thrusting a thick plume of white ash 3.6km into the sky.
Michael Schade, an engineering manager from San Francisco, was one of the tourists who made it off the island minutes before the eruption.
He posted dramatic footage of the eruption from the boat he was on, with smoke first engulfing the top of the crater and then the entire island.
"This is so hard to believe," Schade said. "Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before."
"We know that there were a number of tourists on or around the island at the time, both New Zealanders and visitors from overseas," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference in the morning.
"I know there will be a huge amount of concern and anxiety for those who had loved ones on or around the island at the time. I can assure them that police are doing everything they can."
Ardern earlier said there could have been 100 people on or around the island, but police said there were fewer than 50.
On Twitter, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australians had been affected by the eruption and the government was trying to learn more. Twenty-four Australians were on White Isand when the volcano erupted, Australian media said.
PASSENGERS FROM ROYAL CARIBBEAN CRUISES AFFECTED
The island is about 50km from North Island in the picturesque Bay of Plenty, and is popular with adventurous tourists willing to don hard hats and gas masks.
Kevin O’Sullivan, chief executive of the New Zealand Cruise Association, said: "We believe there is a tour party from Ovation of the Seas involved in the White Island eruption."
Ovation of the Seas is a 16-deck cruise ship owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises. It can take nearly 5,000 passengers and has a crew of about 1,500. It is docked at Tauranga, on the North Island, on a cruise that began in Sydney on Dec 3.
"My understanding is that the tour party was round about 30 people from the cruise ship," Sullivan said.
Royal Caribbean did not confirm that figure.
A crater rim camera owned and operated by New Zealand science agency GeoNet shows groups of people walking toward and away from the rim inside the crater, from which white vapour constantly billows, in the hour leading up to the eruption.
At 2pm the crater rim camera catches a group of people - tiny specks in relation to the vast volcano - right at the edge of the rim. At 2.10pm - just a minute before the eruption - the group is headed away from the rim, following a well-worn track across the crater.
Several helicopters and aircraft could be seen in the area.
At least one group, four tourists and one pilot, who flew to the island on a Volcanic Air helicopter were accounted for, despite landing shortly before the eruption.
"It had landed on the island. What happened after that we don't know, but we know that all five made it back to Whakatane on one of the tourist boats," a company spokesman told AFP.
Guillaume Calmelet, the co-director of Skydive Tauranga, saw the eruption from above as he took a customer on a tandem skydive from a plane 12,000 feet above the Bay of Plenty.
"As soon as the parachute opened there was this huge cloud that was really different to whatever we've seen before," he told AFP. "I could see it coming out in freefall, so probably about 30 seconds for the whole cloud to form, if that. It was pretty quick."
"A THROAT-CLEARING KIND OF ERUPTION"
New Zealand's geoscience agency GNS Science said there are no current signs of an escalation of the "short-lived eruption".
At the news conference, a GNS Science representative said it was "not a particularly big eruption", adding it was "almost like a throat-clearing kind of eruption".
"That's why material probably won't make it to mainland New Zealand."
There seemed to be no danger for people in coastal areas farther away, authorities said.
White Island is New Zealand's most active volcano cone and about 70 per cent of it is undersea, according to government agency GeoNet.
The White Island volcano's last fatal eruption was in 1914, when it killed 12 sulphur miners. There was a short-lived eruption in April 2016.
White Island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit the volcano every year.
GeoNet raised the alert level for the White Island volcano in November due to an increase in volcanic activity.
Just last week, GeoNet volcanologist Brad Scott said in a report that moderate volcanic unrest continued at White Island, with substantial gas, steam and mud bursts observed at the vent located at the back of the crater lake.
"Sudden, unheralded eruptions from volcanoes such as White Island can be expected at any time," said University of Auckland volcanologist Shane Cronin.
"The hazards expected from such events are the violent ejection of hot blocks and ash, and formation of 'hurricane-like' currents of wet ash and coarse particles that radiate from the explosion vent."
"These can be deadly in terms of causing impact trauma, burns and respiratory problems. The eruptions are short-lived, but once one occurs, there are high chances for further, generally smaller ones as the system re-equilibrates."