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white island

'No signs of life': Five killed and eight people missing after New Zealand volcano erupts on island

A total of 31 people are still in hospital and another three have been discharged.

LAST UPDATE | 9 Dec 2019

Volcano. PA Images PA Images

FIVE PEOPLE HAVE been killed, eight people are missing and 31 remain in hospital following an eruption on a volcanic island in New Zealand. 

The volcanic White Island in New Zealand erupted in a tower of ash and steam while dozens of tourists were exploring the moon-like surface this morning. 

Police said there are no indications that those who are missing survived the explosion. 

“Forty-seven people went onto the island – we can now confirm five are deceased, 31 are currently in hospital, a further eight are still missing and three have been discharged from hospital,” police official Bruce Bird said.

Among the missing are tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China and Malaysia.

A spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs said the Irish Embassy in Wellington is “monitoring the situation closely”. 

“Anyone with concerns for Irish citizens in the region should contact the Department on 01 4082527.”

Volcano. White Island Tour operators rescuing people. Michael Schade / Michael Schade / /

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed that 47 people travelled to White Island on Monday.

A total of 31 people are still in hospital and another three have been discharged, Ardern said.

Speaking at a press conference on Tuesday morning local time, Ardern said that New Zealanders, as well as tourists from the UK, US, Australia, China and Malaysia, are among the missing and injured.

She said: “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.

Your loved ones stood alongside Kiwis who are hosting you here and we grieve with you and we grieve with them.

White Island erupted with a large plume of ash and steam on Monday while dozens of people were exploring New Zealand’s most active volcano.

Aerial footage showed “no signs of life” on the island following the eruption, according to New Zealand police, who said they do not expect to find any more survivors.

Rescue teams were unable to access the island on foot due to unstable conditions hours after the eruption, which occurred shortly after 2pm local time on Monday.

The New Zealand Red Cross activated the missing list to allow people to self-register as safe and well, or to register details of a person they have lost contact with.

Information on the list is submitted by members of public.

Angela Sutherland, general manager of disaster risk management at the New Zealand Red Cross, urged anyone worried about friends or family to “first contact them as you normally would”.

“Using your own channels can help to speed up the process and helps response agencies as well,” she said.

“If you cannot make contact, please register them through our Family Links website.”

White Island is in the Bay of Plenty, near the town of Tauranga on North Island.

The active volcano is a tourist hotspot but has erupted several times before, most recently in 2016 and during the 2012/13 period.

Brad Scott, a volcanologist with research group GNS Science, said the eruption sent a plume of steam and ash about 12,000ft into the air.

He said it had also affected the whole of the White Island crater floor.

The GeoNet agency, which monitors volcanoes and earthquakes in New Zealand, at first raised its alert level to four, on a scale where five represents a major eruption.

It later dropped the alert level back down to three.

Scott said that was because the eruption was not sustained beyond the initial blast.

White Island sits about 50 kilometres offshore from mainland New Zealand.

Already people are questioning why tourists were still able to visit the island after scientists recently noted an increase in volcanic activity.

White. PA Graphics PA Graphics

GeoNet raised the alert level on White Island from one to two on 18 November, noting an increase in the amount of sulphur 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.

Scott said the alert level was often raised and then later dropped again without any eruption.

He said there had not 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.

“In the scheme of things, for volcanic eruptions, it is not large,” said Ken Gledhill, from GeoNet.

“But if you were close to that, it is not good.”

White Island is north east of the town of Tauranga on North Island, one of New Zealand’s two main islands.

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.

GeoNet said White Island is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano and about 70% of the volcano is under the sea.

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, according to GeoNet.

The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953 and daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit the volcano every year.

The island is also known by the indigenous Maori name Whakaari.

- With reporting from AFP 

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