"This is evolving; at this stage obviously it does appear to be a very significant issue, particularly the scale of those affected at this stage," said New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
One person has died and a number of people are missing after a volcano erupted on White Island in the Bay of Plenty on New Zealand’s North Island this afternoon.
Seven rescue helicopters raced to the island after possible sightings of tourists near the crater around the time of the eruption.
“I can confirm there is one fatality,” said National Operation Commander Deputy Commissioner John Tims.
“At this stage it is too dangerous for police and rescue to go on to the island … the island is currently covered in ash and volcanic material.”
New Zealand Police said just after 5pm (local time) that fewer than 50 people were on White Island at the time of the eruption, New Zealand Herald reported.
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
Police are working with the country’s National Emergency Management Agency to coordinate a search and rescue operation following the volcanic eruption.
“While it was initially believed there were approximately 100 people on or near the island at the time of the eruption, we now believe there were fewer than 50,” New Zealand Police said.
“Some of those people have been transported to shore, however a number believed to be on the island are currently unaccounted for. Of those transported to shore, at least one has been critically injured. Emergency services are working to ensure the safety of everyone involved, including rescue staff.
“A volcanic eruption is hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the volcano. Volcanic hazards may impact on and near the volcano. Ashfall may impact areas distant from the volcano.”
— Dr Robbi Bishop-Taylor (@EarthObserved) December 9, 2019
It is understood passengers from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship, which was visiting Tauranga, were among those visiting White Island at the time of the eruption.
Port of Tauranga CEO Mark Cairns said he understood the majority of those injured in the eruption are from the ship.
Volcanic Air confirmed it had a helicopter on White Island at the time it erupted this afternoon.
Five people had flown to the island in the helicopter, but all are accounted for and have arrived back in Whakatāne by boat.
Don Richards, owner of the River to Sea BnB, told NZ Stuff that he was located within the cordon on Muriwai Drive and could see steam coming off the island and fleets of ambulances assembling at the wharf and helicopters landing.
He saw two White Island Tour boats coming in from the island, the second boat came in at speed about 4pm and “was covered in ash”.
Some of the passengers off the boats appeared to be walking, some were sat wrapped in emergency blankets, while others were being carried in on stretchers.
Earlier New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that people were unaccounted for.
“This is evolving, at this stage obviously it does appear to be a very significant issue, particularly the scale of those affected at this stage.
“All our thoughts are with those affected,” she said.