Updated 12:30 p.m. ET
At least five people are dead after an eruption on a volcanic island off the coast of New Zealand on Monday, local officials have confirmed.
New Zealand police say a number of people were injured and have been taken to an area hospital, but it remains too dangerous for emergency services to access the island and search for those missing.
Authorities believe fewer than 50 New Zealanders and international tourists were on or near White Island — about 30 miles off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island — but the exact number of people unaccounted for is unclear.
“We are continuing to work as quickly as possible, through a number of channels of information, to confirm exact numbers of those involved, including those who remain on the island,” New Zealand Police said in a statement Monday.
The volcano erupted just after 2 p.m. local time on Monday, according to The Guardian, which reports 23 people have been rescued. It also reports:
” ‘No signs of life have been seen at any point,’ police said after rescue helicopters and other aircraft had carried out a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island following the eruption on Monday afternoon. ‘Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation.’ “
New Zealand officials continue to receive advice from scientists about when it will be safe for first responders to resume search operations.
“Due to the current risk environment, emergency services remain unable to access the island,” the statement said. “We are reassessing as information and advice is received, however Police will not be in a position to access the island tonight.”
The New Zealand Defence Force said it was “sending a number of NZDF assets and personnel to assist in the emergency response following the eruption on White Island,” according to a statement. In a separate tweet, it said a New Zealand aircraft had carried out surveillance flights and two NH90 helicopters have been dispatched to the coastal town of Whakatane to offer support.
Reporting from Manila, Philippines, NPR’s Julie McCarthy says White Island has New Zealand’s most active volcano.
“The eruption sent a plume of steam and ash 12,000 feet high and affected the entire crater floor, according to a volcanologist from the research group GNS Science,” McCarthy said. “Questions are rising over why tourists, who come to explore White Island’s moon-like surface, were still being allowed to visit. In recent weeks, scientists reportedly noted an uptick in volcanic activity — observing substantial gas, steam and mud bursts at the vent.”
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted Monday that he had spoken “several times” with New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, but acknowledged “there is still no comprehensive or confirmed information about the well-being of those who were impacted by the volcano eruption.”
He added there were 24 Australians visiting the island with a cruise ship tour.
“It will take some time for us to get a clear indication and we must be patient,” Morrison said.
The New Zealand Herald reports up to 24 people are feared dead, and many of those injured are being treated for severe burns.
Of those killed was a man from Whakatane, according to the paper, which described him as “an experienced guide for White Island Tours.” Whakatane’s former mayor, Tony Bonne, described him as a “young energetic man who’s lost his life,” reports the New Zealand Herald.
The BBC reports tourists were walking inside the crater moments before Monday’s eruption.
One visitor, Michael Schade, posted a Twitter thread with videos and photos of a thick grayish-white plume billowing from White Island. He said he and his family had narrowly escaped the destruction.
“My god, White Island volcano in New Zealand erupted today for first time since 2001,” Schade tweeted. “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.”
MetService, a weather forecaster in New Zealand, tweeted satellite images of the plume from the volcanic eruption.
New Zealand’s National Emergency Management Agency issued an alert Monday describing the eruption as an “impulsive, shortlived event” that looks to have diminished.
It notes, “ash has covered the main crater floor as seen in our webcam images. Ash fall appears to be confined to the island and we do not expect more than a minor amount of ash to reach East Cape in the coming hours.”