New Zealand volcano eruption leaves 5 dead, 8 unaccounted for

Five people are dead and eight are unaccounted for after a volcanic island in New Zealand erupted Monday. Recovery teams still aren't able to access the island amid concerns about safety.

Police said site is still too dangerous for rescuers to search for missing

Eyewitness captures sudden volcano eruption

4 years ago
Duration 0:59
See the huge plume of ash and steam after a New Zealand volcanic island erupts

Five people are dead, 31 are in hospital and eight are unaccounted for after a volcano erupted on an island off New Zealand's coast on Monday. Three more people were discharged from hospital overnight.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said officials can confirm New Zealanders and tourists from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, China and Malaysia are among the missing and injured.

"To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief at this moment in time, and in your sorrow," the prime minister said.

On Tuesday local time, Australia's prime minister said three of the five dead are believed to be Australians, while 13 are among those hospitalized, including in burn units.

"I fear there is worse news to come over the course of perhaps today or over the next few days," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

"This is a terrible tragedy, a time of great innocence and joy interrupted by the horror of that eruption."

Australians were the largest group exploring White Island when it erupted Monday.

Unstable conditions hampered search and rescue workers after the eruption. (Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Police said the site is still too dangerous hours later for rescuers to search for the missing and based on information they have, they do not believe there are any survivors on White Island.

Officials are working with scientific and technical experts to determine when people can safely return to the island.

Ardern praised those who helped get people off the island after Monday afternoon's eruption, calling their actions "courageous." She said for now, the focus is on the critically injured and dead, adding that questions about whether people should have even been on the island will be addressed in time.

"It is a very unpredictable volcano," she said. "There will be questions that will be asked and do need to be answered by the appropriate authorities and we will be ensuring that that happens — but for now we're focused on those that are caught up in this horrific event."

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses a news conference Monday as police Supt. Bruce Bird, left, watches in Whakatane, New Zealand. (Mark Baker/The Associated Press)

Some of those involved were tourists from the Royal Caribbean International cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

"A number of our guests were touring the island today," the company said. "We will offer all possible assistance to our guests and local authorities. Please keep all those affected in your prayers."

WATCH: New Zealand PM provides update on volcanic eruption

New Zealand PM provides update on volcanic eruption

4 years ago
Duration 1:03
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern outlines the nationalities of those killed when a volcano erupted off the country's White Island and updates on next steps.

Global Affairs Canada said it is closely monitoring the situation and at this time, there are no reports of Canadians being affected by the volcanic eruption.

White Island is northeast of the town of Tauranga on North Island, one of New Zealand's two main islands. It sits about 50 kilometres off the mainland and is New Zealand's most active volcano. About 70 per cent of the volcano lies under the sea.

Police were asking people to avoid areas on the North Island that were close to the eruption, including the Whakatane Heads and Muriwai Drive areas.

Brad Scott, a volcanologist with GNS Science, said the eruption sent a plume of steam and ash about 3,660 metres into the air. He said it had also affected the whole of the White Island crater floor.

On Nov. 18, GeoNet raised the alert level on White Island from 1 to 2 on a scale where 5 represents a major eruption, noting an increase in the amount of sulfur dioxide gas, which originates from magma deep in the volcano. It also said at the time that over the previous weeks, the volcanic tremor had increased from weak to moderate strength.

After the disaster, GeoNet raised its alert level to 4, later dropping it to 3.

Scott said the alert level was often raised and later dropped again without any eruption. He said there hadn't been any major incidents with tourists visiting the island in the past, although there had been some close calls.

Scott said it was not for him to say whether the island was safe enough to host tourists immediately before Monday's eruption.

Tour guides remove tourists on a boat soon after the volcano erupted. (@SCH/Reuters)

Erik Klemetti, an associate professor of geosciences at Denison University who studies volcanoes, said White Island is the crater of a "fairly active" volcano.

Klemetti told CBC News Network it was a "gut punch" when he heard of the deadly eruption, noting he'd had concerns something like this might happen on the island.

Klemetti noted Monday that while scientists can see signs of unrest, there are "a lot of styles of volcanic eruption, and some of them come really without warning." 

Twelve people were killed on the island in 1914 when it was being mined for sulphur. Part of a crater wall collapsed, and a landslide destroyed the miners' village and the mine itself.

The remains of buildings from another mining enterprise in the 1920s are now a tourist attraction. The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit every year.

'My stomach just dropped'

Tristan Webb, director with a skydiving company in New Zealand, saw the eruption from above.

"When we exited the aircraft, pretty much immediately we could see the plume, almost beginning to envelop the entire island," Webb told CBC News Network.

There were no signs Monday the "steady stream of smoke that we constantly see off the island was any more or any less than what it normally would be," Webb said. "But it was just very rapid in terms of the way it expanded."

Coast guard rescue boats arrive at the marina near Whakatane on Monday. (John Boren/Getty Images)

Canadian Sylvain Plasse is aboard a cruise ship that carried some of the tourists who had ventured to the volcano. 

Plasse, who saw signs of the eruption from Tauranga, said "my stomach just dropped" when he heard the captain's announcement about what had happened.

"It hurts when you think that these people you just talked to last night might be gone now."

The cruise ship, which had left from Sydney last week, was scheduled to sail to the capital Wellington on Monday night, but the company said it would instead remain in the Tauranga port overnight until it learned more on the situation.

With files from The Associated Press