Webcam footage showed visitors in the crater of White Island volcano, also known as Whakaari, shortly before the eruption. At least 10 people are unaccounted for.
Five people have died and at least 10 are unaccounted for after New Zealand’s most active cone volcano erupted.
The volcano on White Island, also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, unexpectedly erupted at 2:11 p.m. local time (8:11 p.m. ET on Sunday).
The five people confirmed as dead were among 23 people evacuated from the island after the eruption. The remaining 18 people all had injuries of some degree, including severe burns.
“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 press conference.
“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.”
Videos and images posted online by tourists who left the island, about 30 miles off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, shortly before the volcano erupted showed a huge plume of white ash in the sky.
Visitor Michael Schade said he and his family had been in the crater of the volcano just 30 minutes before it erupted.
Another video Schade posted showed what looked like a destroyed helicopter close to the shore of the island, as people waited to leave.
A webcam operated by New Zealand’s geological hazard agency GeoNet showed at least one group of tourists inside the crater shortly before it erupted. The camera later went dark.
John Timms, deputy commissioner of New Zealand police, told a news conference. that a no-fly zone was in place and that emergency services were unable to access the island due to the current risk.
“We have taken advice from GeoNet and they have assisted us in making a risk assessment that the island is unstable,” Timms said.
“The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island. It is important that we consider the health and safety of those that are going to rescue those on the island.”
He said at least 10 people remained unaccounted for on the island but could not be more specific. The victims include a range of nationalities, Timms added. Police had earlier said around 50 people were on the island when the volcano erupted.
“Our thoughts are absolutely with the friends and family of those that are injured and those who have died,” he said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted to say that Australians had been “caught up in this terrible event.”
White Island or Whakaari, which is privately owned, is a popular destination for day trips for tourists.
The volcano last experienced a short-lived eruption three years ago.