5 killed by volcanic eruption in New Zealand

Volcanic eruption
Volcanic eruption

Reconnaissance flights over New Zealand’s White Island volcano have not identified any survivors there after Monday’s eruption, police say.

About 50 people are thought to have been touring the uninhabited island. At least five died and 23 were rescued, some critically ill with burn injuries.

Police believe anyone who could have been found alive was evacuated.

A naval ship is due to approach the island, which has yet to be searched because of the risks to rescuers.

Smoke and ash continued to rise above the island after daybreak on Tuesday.

Tourists were seen walking inside the crater of White Island volcano moments before it erupted.

“Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island,” the latest police update says.

White Island, also called Whakaari, is the country’s most active volcano. Despite that, the privately owned island is a tourist destination with frequent day tours and scenic flights available.

Deputy Police Commissioner John Tims told reporters that “both New Zealand and overseas tourists” were believed to be involved.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she knows that there will be a “huge amount of concern and anxiety for those who had loved ones on or around the island at the time”. She assured them that the police were doing “everything they can”.

What happened at the volcano?

White Island erupted at around 14:11 (01:11 GMT), sending up a thick plume of ash and smoke which was filmed by visitor Michael Schade.

Mr Schade, who was on a boat leaving the island after a morning tour, told the BBC he had been at the crater just 30 minutes before the disaster.

“We had just got on the boat… then someone pointed it out and we saw it,” he said.

“I was basically just shocked. The boat turned back and we grabbed some people that were waiting on the pier.”

Another witness, Brazilian Allessandro Kauffmann, said in an Instagram post in Portuguese that his boat had left five minutes before the eruption.

“This other tour that arrived right after, unfortunately they did not manage to leave in time, and there were some people that suffered serious burns,” he added.

A live feed from the volcano showed a group of visitors inside the crater before the stream went dark.

Who was caught up in the disaster?

Up to 20 people are believed to have been injured, several of whom were brought by helicopter to Whakatane, the nearest town on the mainland, Reuters news agency reports.

There are few details about those caught in the eruption. Some who had gone to the island were passengers from the Ovation of the Seas, a cruise ship owned by Royal Caribbean.

It left Sydney last week and stopped near Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island before arriving in the city of Tauranga, near White Island, on Sunday.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australians had “been caught up in this terrible event”, adding that authorities were “working to determine their wellbeing”.

A web page set up by the New Zealand Red Cross for families to register missing loved ones includes people from Australia, New Zealand, the US, India, Britain and other European countries.

Why are tourists allowed on the island?

The island, also known as Whakaari, is privately owned and is typically visited by thousands of tourists every year, despite the fact that it has been erupting in some form since 2011.

Geological hazard monitors GeoNet pass on information about the volcano’s activity to tour operators and the police, but tourists make their own decisions about whether to visit.

Visitors are supplied with hard hats and gas masks to protect against sulphurous steam and must have suitable footwear to make the tour, according to New Zealand website Stuff.

The owners of Whakatane-based company White Island Tours are the official guardians of the island, which was declared a private scenic reserve in 1952, and they grant access through designated tour operators.

According to the New Zealand Herald, White Island Tours warned on its website that visitors “should be aware that there is always a risk of eruptive activity regardless of the alert level”, while stating it followed a “comprehensive safety plan which determines” its activities on the island “at the various levels”.

Company chairman Paul Quinn said the event on the island had been a “terrible tragedy” and the company’s “thoughts and prayers are with everyone who has been impacted”.

The BBC has contacted White Island Tours for comment.

Last Tuesday GeoNet warned of a heightened level of activity at the site, but also said that “the current level of activity does not pose a direct hazard to visitors”.

White Island has seen several eruptions over the years, most recently in 2016 but no-one was hurt in that event.

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