NEWS
09/12/2019 5:03 PM AEDT | Updated 09/12/2019 10:11 PM AEDT

Volcano Erupts In New Zealand, Leaving At Least 5 Dead, Other Tourists Missing

Several tourists remained unaccounted for after a volcanic eruption on New Zealand's White Island on Monday afternoon.

A volcano erupted in New Zealand on Monday afternoon, killing at least five people and injuring as many as 20 others. The country’s prime minister warned that some tourists who were visiting the site still remained unaccounted for as rescue officials headed to the region.

The country’s science agency, GeoNet, said a volcano erupted on White Island, a small tourist site about 30 miles offshore of mainland New Zealand, shortly after 2pm The agency issued a level 4 volcanic alert at the time (a level five, the highest on the scale, represents a “major eruption”), saying the event was a short-lived one that sent ash about 12,000 feet into the sky.

“Ash has covered the main crater floor as seen in our webcam images,” GeoNet said. “Ash fall appears to be confined to the island. … There remains significant uncertainty as to future changes but currently, there are no signs of escalation.”

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said during a news briefing about 50 people were on or near the island when the volcano erupted, some of whom may be missing.

“Some of those, at this stage, are unaccounted for,” Ardern said of the tourists. “A number of people are reportedly injured and are being transported to shore.”

@SCH VIA REUTERS
Thick smoke from the volcanic eruption of Whakaari, also known as White Island, is seen from a distance of a vessel in New Zealand, December 9, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. 
@SCH VIA REUTERS
Thick smoke from the volcanic eruption of Whakaari, also known as White Island, is seen from a distance of a vessel in New Zealand, December 9, 2019, in this image obtained via social media.

New Zealand Police Commissioner John Tims said later Monday that at least one person had been killed during the eruption, but warned that there were “likely to be more” based on the information authorities had. Tourists who were on the scene said they saw individuals that appeared to have “serious burns,” The Guardian reported.

“We are working to confirm the numbers involved,” Tims said during a news briefing. “At this stage, it is too dangerous for police and rescue services to go to the island. …The island is currently covered in ash and volcanic material. We are taking expert advice with regards to the safety of any rescue attempt.”

He said some of the people on the island were from a cruise ship known as Ovation of the Seas, which is owned by Royal Caribbean.

EyesWideOpen via Getty Images
This photo, taken in 2010, shows White Island. It sits about 30 miles off the coast of New Zealand's North Island. (Photo by EyesWideOpen/Getty Images)

Ardern said the situation was evolving, but called the eruption a “very significant issue.” A no-fly zone has been established in the area, but the prime minister said she planned to travel to the island on Monday evening

GeoNet notes White Island is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, and about 70 percent of the structure is under the sea. 12 people were killed on the island in 1914 when part of the crater wall collapsed, causing a landslide that destroyed a sulphur mine and a village.

The site is privately owned, but is now a private scenic reserve that allows about 10,000 people to visit annually.