A volcano has erupted in New Zealand, leaving at least five people dead and several unaccounted for, police have said. Tourists were seen walking inside the crater of the White Island volcano moments before Monday’s eruption which geologists say was unexpected.
Twenty-three people have been rescued, but it is unclear how many people remain on the island. Police say rescuers are not able to access the island because of the risk of further eruptions. White Island, also called Whakaari, is New Zealand’s most active volcano.
The privately owned island is a tourist destination with frequent day tours and scenic flights available. At the time of the eruption, a ship from the Royal Caribbean cruise line was moored offshore and it is believed as many as 30 cruise members were on the island.
Police believe that, in total, fewer than 50 people were on the island when the volcano erupted. Deputy Police Commissioner John Tims told reporters that “both New Zealand and overseas tourists” were believed to be involved. The eruption of White Island began at about 14:11 local time (01:11 GMT).
Visitor Michael Schade, who was on a boat leaving the island after a morning tour, said he was at the top of the crater just 30 minutes before the eruption. “We were told that although there was some activity going on that we were safe. I understand that authorities were limiting group sizes but we did not know an eruption was about to happen.”
Describing the eruption, he said: “We had just got on the boat… then someone pointed it out and we saw it. I was basically just shocked. The boat turned back and we grabbed some people waiting on the pier.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “I know there will be a huge amount of concern and anxiety for those who have loved ones at the island at that time — and I can assure them police are doing everything they can.”
She said falling ash was hampering attempts by rescuers to get to the site.