At least five people have died and more than 20 are still unaccounted for after the White Island/Whakaari volcano off the coast of New Zealand erupted without warning Monday as tourists hiked around the rim and walked inside the crater.
Authorities say an estimated 30 to 38 of those on the island when the volcano erupted were on an adventure excursion from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that was docked on North Island about 30 miles away.
In a statement just after midnight local time, police officials said they feared the worst for those still on the island.
“The Police Eagle helicopter, rescue helicopter, and NZDF aircraft have undertaken a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island since the eruption,” according to a statement at 12:12 a.m.
“No signs of life have been seen at any point. Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation,” it reads.
“Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island.”
Kevin O’Sullivan, chief executive of the New Zealand Cruise Association and Royal Caribbean cruise lines, confirmed that tourists from the Ovation of the Seas ship were involved. He said the names and nationalities of those who were on the volcano for the cruise line’s “epic adventure excursion” have been handed to New Zealand police.
Authorities said they believe it may be some time before the toxic ash is cool enough to set foot on the volcano for what is likely to be a recovery mission.
About 10 minutes before the volcano erupted at 2:11 p.m. local time, a crater-rim webcam owned by the New Zealand Geological Hazards Agency GeoNet captured an image of a group of tourists approaching the crater. The next image shows only crumpled hardware after the camera was damaged in the blast.
John Tims, New Zealand National Operation Commander, told a news conference Monday that toxic gases, burning ash, and lava have made conditions unsafe for rescue crews to search for survivors on the island. The dead were among 23 people immediately evacuated after the eruption. All those rescued had burn injuries. Officials said the five who died were among those evacuated.
Officials in Canberra told the Agence-France Press news agency they believed a “considerable number” of those involved in the disaster are Australian.
Authorities say around 50 people were on the tiny 1.2 mile-square-mile island at the time it erupted without warning.
Several tourists posted photos of the eruption on social media as they watched in horror as the volcano erupted, sending a plume of hot ash some two miles into the sky.
Michael Schade, an engineering manager from San Francisco, posted footage of the eruption from an excursion vessel he and several others were on as it sped away. “This is so hard to believe,” Schade wrote. “Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before.”
The active volcano encompasses all of the tiny privately owned island about 30 miles from New Zealand’s North Island. It has been in a constant state of volcanic activity for more than 150,000 years. The last major eruption was in 2001, though the volcano has spewed spouts of dangerous steam from its vents in recent years. Despite the dangerous volcanic state, more than 10,000 adventure tourists visit the island each year, paying landing license to the island’s owners. The island also hosts a mobile research station but no residential accommodation, and tourists are warned of the potential for eruption and made to sign waivers regarding the potential danger they face on the live volcano, according to several websites offering volcano tours.
“White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years,” Professor Emeritus Ray Cas, from Monash University’s School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment in Melbourne, Australia, told The Wall Street Journal. “Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was heading to Whakatāne in the Bay of Plenty, which is the closest safe area to the disaster zone. She told reporters the situation was still “significant and evolving.”
“We know that there were a number of tourists on or around the island at the time, both New Zealanders and visitors from overseas,” she said. “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.”