Five people have been confirmed dead after the volcano on New Zealand’s White Island erupted.
Up to two dozen people remain unaccounted for as unstable conditions, toxic gases and ash fall prevent rescue teams from searching the island.
The country’s most active cone volcano erupted at 2.11 pm on Monday, sending up a huge plume of ash that was visible from the east coast of the North Island.
Police said about 50 people were on the island at the time, more than 20 of whom were Australian tourists.
Twenty-three people have been rescued, and five have since died.
All of those rescued had sustained injuries, mostly burns, police said, and seven people who were in a critical condition had been flown to hospitals in Tauranga and Auckland.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, who was en route to the nearby coastal town of Whakatāne on Monday evening, said the situation was “significant and evolving”.
John Tims, the deputy police commissioner of district operations, said at least two dozen people remained on the island, but he could not be sure of the exact number, nor when a rescue mission would be possible.
The condition of the people was unknown, and Tims would not be drawn on whether police had made any contact with those left behind. A no-fly zone remained over the island, but police had got close “to the shore”, Tims said. “The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island.”
Ardern said she was liaising closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and police confirmed that those missing on the island were New Zealanders and foreign nationals.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, confirmed Australians had been “caught up” in the eruption and offered emergency support.
Kevin O’Sullivan, the chief executive officer of the New Zealand Cruise Association, said a tour party of 30 to 38 people from the Ovation of the Seas was touring White Island when the eruption took place, and the party had not returned. Their names and nationalities were being given to the police, he said. The ship would remain in Tauranga port at least overnight.
Royal Caribbean, which owns the Ovation of the Seas, asked for “prayers” to be said for all involved.
Ardern said police were unable to land on the island due to the danger of another eruption and dangerous, unstable conditions on the ground.
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
Tims said that based on the fatalities and conditions on the island, the death toll would probably climb. “The island is currently covered in ash and volcanic material,” he said. “We are taking expert advice with regards to the safety of any rescue attempt.”
Michael Schade, an American tourist, had just returned from the crater to a tour boat with his parents when the volcano erupted. When their boat returned to pick up survivors, some were in shock, and others burned “to different levels of severity”, he said.
“We were all busy the entire time, just trying to stay out of the way of people who knew what they were doing and also just to help out wherever we could,” he said of the return trip.
Passengers handed over jackets and shirts, eye drops and water, and a human chain was formed to refill bottles so the injured could pour it on their burns.
Dr Ken Glairdhill, of GNS Science, said the volcano was unpredictable.
“It was not a particularly big eruption,” he said. “It was almost like a throat-clearing eruption.
“It showed increased activity for the last few weeks, so we raised the alert level.”
A level four alert was issued for the volcano, also known by its Māori name Whakaari, indicating a “moderate volcanic eruption” was possible, according to the science agency GeoNet. The scale runs from zero to five – a major eruption.
St John Ambulance treated at least 20 people who were injured, with ambulance officers travelling to the island with the coast guard and seven helicopters, which had been dispatched with paramedics on board.
A spokeswoman initially said the service’s medical director would establish a triage unit on the island when he arrived, but this later proved to be impossible.
A damaged helicopter shown in footage of the island belonged to Volcanic Air, a tour company based in Rotorua. The pilot and four passengers were unharmed and returned to the mainland via boat on Monday afternoon, a company spokesman said.
“Volcanic Air has confirmed it had a helicopter on Whakaari/White Island at the time it erupted this afternoon,” a spokesman said. “Five people had flown to the island in the helicopter, but all are accounted for and have arrived back in Whakatane by boat.”
Footage taken from the volcano’s crater camera appeared to show people in the area minutes before it erupted.
About 10,000 people a year visit the volcano.
The civil defence authority warned that the situation was hazardous “in the immediate vicinity of the volcano”, which is 48km off the coast of the Bay of Plenty.
After the eruption the police blocked streets close to the sea, and the MetService weather agency warned pilots to avoid the area.
White Island last experienced a short-lived eruption in 2016, in which no one was hurt.
Geological hazard trackers GeoNet had registered moderate volcanic unrest on the island for weeks before Monday’s eruption.