A sudden and unexpected volcanic eruption on New Zealand’s White Island has killed at least five people and injured more than a dozen, according to local authorities. The death toll is expected to rise, as police have said there are now “no signs of life” on the island.
The eruption occurred Monday afternoon local time. There were fewer than 50 people on the island at the time, and 18 survivors, most of whom were injured, have been evacuated. New Zealand police deputy commissioner John Tims said in a briefing that he didn’t know the exact number of people still missing but that it was “in the double digits.”
White Island, New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, is a popular tourist destination 30 miles from the eastern coast of the country’s North Island. It is not inhabited, but tour groups bring passengers to explore the landscape and visit the remains of a mining operation. According to the Associated Press, more than 10,000 people visit the volcano each year. Most of the people on the island at the time of the eruption were passengers on the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.
An American tourist named Michael Schade, who said he had left the island mere minutes before the eruption, captured a number of astonishing photos and videos of the event:
According to the AP, the eruption released a plume of steam and ash 12,000 feet high. The eruption was violent but brief, and ash carpeted the entire landscape. In one video, Schade captured a grounded helicopter, coated in ash and visibly warped and broken. (According to the Guardian, the helicopter’s pilot and four passengers were unharmed.)
In another, he captured a group of people assembled near the water:
Some have already questioned why tourists were allowed access to the island, which had been experiencing an uptick in volcanic activity in recent weeks. The GeoNet agency, which monitors seismic and volcanic activity in New Zealand, raised the island’s alert level from 1 to 2 out of 5 in mid-November, according to the AP, after seeing an increase of sulfur dioxide gas and a slight strengthening of the volcanic tremor. But a raised alert has not always signaled an oncoming blast.
A scientist from GeoNet told the AP that the eruption was “not large” comparatively, but some footage from a camera that monitors the volcano’s crater appeared to show tourists walking near the crater in the minutes before it erupted.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a press conference that she would not yet entertain questions about responsibility for the deaths. “There will be a time and a place to undertake further assessments,” she said. “Now, we have to focus on allowing the police to do their job and focus on those who were in the vicinity of the island at the time.”
Police said they believe, from several flights over the island, that there are no survivors. But they have said they will send drones in hopes of finding some sign of life in the morning. On the advice of experts, police and rescue crews have held back on physically searching the island, which remains volatile and dangerous, with toxic gases and ash continuing to fall.