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Smoke rises from a volcanic eruption on Whakaari, New Zealand, on Dec. 9, 2019.

@ALLESSANDROKAUFFMANN/Reuters

They had taken boats to a desolate island to get a glimpse of a natural wonder, but when the White Island volcano erupted Monday, a scene of stunning beauty suddenly turned into a deadly trap.

At least five people were killed when the volcano erupted on the island off the eastern coast of New Zealand, eight were still missing and 31 remained hospitalized with burns and other injuries. Three more people had been hospitalized and released.

Reconnaissance flights over the area have found no signs of life.

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“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,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference in Whakatane, a coastal community near the volcano. “Our duty,” she added, “is to return loved ones.”

New Zealand authorities said a criminal investigation had been opened in the aftermath of the eruption, in addition to a formal inquiry by the country’s work safety commission. A New Zealand deputy police commissioner, John Tims, said emergency personnel were still trying to gain access to the island but were being held up by the risk of further eruptions and rough wind conditions that had grounded an attempt to get drones above the island for reconnaissance.

“We understand the desire from the locals and the loved ones to remove their family from the island but we are working round the clock, we are working hard, and we understand what we need to do for friends and family,” he said.

The challenge of recovery and the scale of the disaster caused by the volcano – which has been promoted for decades as live and active but relatively safe to visit – played out overnight and into Tuesday morning as officials described dangerous helicopter flights to look for survivors and attempts to treat the wounded.

Among the missing or injured were tourists from Australia, China, Malaysia, the United Kingdom and the U.S., along with tour operators from New Zealand.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia said in a statement that 24 Australians had been on White Island, 13 of whom are hospitalized. As many as three of the five confirmed dead are Australian, as are many of the missing.

Tuesday morning, relatives gathered at the Port of Tauranga where two large cruise ships sat docked, as officials interviewed people aboard.

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On the Ovation of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean ship from which several groups of tourists went to the volcano just before it erupted, no one was being allowed to disembark.

Volcano eruption in New Zealand

Multiple people were reported killed, injured and missing after a volcano that is a tourist attraction suddenly erupted off the coast of New Zealand's North Island.

Detail

Wellington

New Zealand

Bay of Plenty

Ovation of the Seas cruise ship arrived from Auckland

Some tourists from the ship were believed to be on the island during the eruption.

White Island

The volcano erupted at about 2:11 p.m. local time.

At least one rescue vessel

rushed to the island before returning to Whakatane at 9:01 p.m. local time

Tauranga

2

Whakatane

0

10

30

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

Volcano eruption in New Zealand

Multiple people were reported killed, injured and missing after a volcano that is a tourist attraction suddenly erupted off the coast of New Zealand's North Island.

Detail

Wellington

New Zealand

Bay of Plenty

White Island

The volcano erupted at about 2:11 p.m. local time.

Ovation of the Seas cruise ship arrived from Auckland

Some tourists from the ship were believed to be on the island during the eruption.

At least one rescue vessel rushed to the island before returning to Whakatane at 9:01 p.m. local time

Tauranga

2

Whakatane

0

10

30

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

Volcano eruption in New Zealand

Detail

Multiple people were reported killed, injured and missing after a volcano that is a tourist attraction suddenly erupted off the coast of New Zealand's North Island.

Wellington

New Zealand

Bay of Plenty

Ovation of the Seas cruise ship arrived from Auckland

Some tourists from the ship were believed to be on the island during the eruption.

White Island

The volcano erupted at about 2:11 p.m. local time.

At least one rescue vessel

rushed to the island before returning to Whakatane at 9:01 p.m. local time

Tauranga

2

Whakatane

0

10

30

KM

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: REUTERS

Officials said 47 people were on White Island when it erupted. Dozens more were cruising the area in smaller boats. “It looked like a nuclear bomb going off,” said one witness who spoke to Radio New Zealand.

Others described a slowly emerging cloud of smoke and ash, seen from the water, and the suddenly horrifying realization that some people were still there.

“This is so hard to believe,” said Michael Schade, a visitor from San Francisco, who posted photos and video of his group’s departure from White Island moments after the eruption. “Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before.”

Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated Monday, said Tims, the deputy police commissioner.

Among the missing are people who were seen on a webcam exploring the upper reaches of the volcano’s crater just before the eruption, Reuters reported.

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Ardern said that the tourists on White Island seemed to have had little time to seek shelter before the “very significant” eruption occurred.

The island, also known as Whakaari, is privately owned and is typically visited by thousands of tourists every year, many of them drawn by promotions for “New Zealand’s most active volcano.”

For Whakatane, a town of about 20,000 that’s a hub for White Island tours, the volcano’s appeal to visitors is an important part of the local economy.

“The whole tourist industry revolves around the island,” said Phil van Dusschoten, a retired police officer who now runs a company that operates dive and fishing trips.

“It’s a somber atmosphere,” he said in a telephone interview Tuesday morning, adding that the smell of sulfur was still wafting in the air.

Van Dusschoten said he was working on his boat when he saw the 12,000-foot tall ash clouds billowing from White Island. He said he later saw a busload of people, all of whom were shirtless, who had likely been rescued from the island.

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“For the last 30 plus years, we’ve operated without incident, allowing tens of thousands of tourists to visit the volcano,” he said. “It’s very sad.”

Monday, enveloped in the searing ash, White Island was too dangerous for emergency workers to reach. Tims told an afternoon news conference there had been no communication with anyone still on the island. Ash and smoke made it difficult for cameras pointed toward the volcano to see anyone on the island.

“We know the urgency to go back to the island,” he told reporters.

Ardern traveled Monday to Whakatane.

“I know that there will be a huge amount of anxiety for those who had loved ones on the island at the time,” she said.

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Tourists from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship were among those who visited the island Monday, the company said, but the company did not say how many went or address their fate. Tims, the police commissioner, said the police were scheduled to receive a list of those who had gone to the island.

A Royal Caribbean spokesman, Jonathon Fishman, said the company was “working together with local authorities and providing all the help and care we can to our guests and their families, including offering medical resources and counselling.”

The eruption was reported to have occurred at 2:11 p.m. local time.

Directly after the eruption, GeoNet, the agency that monitors geological activity in New Zealand, raised its volcanic alert level to four. By about 4.30 p.m., it was decreased to Level 3, with the agency noting there was no further escalation in volcanic activity.

Police have established a no-fly zone around the island and warned people living near areas that might be affected by falling ash to remain indoors and listen to the radio or television for news updates.

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Ash fall can contain jagged particles of abrasive rock or natural glass and anyone exposed to it was advised to wear a dust mask or use a cloth handkerchief to cover their noses and mouths and wear goggles to protect their eyes.

Ken Gledhill, from the research institute GNS Science, likened the eruption to the volcano “clearing its throat” and said that while it looked like it had quietened down, authorities could not be certain there would not be another eruption within the next 24 hours.

The volcano is New Zealand’s most active.

The eruption was reported to have occurred at 2:11 p.m. local time.

Directly after the eruption, GeoNet, the agency that monitors geological activity in New Zealand, raised its volcanic alert level to four. By about 4.30 p.m., it was decreased to Level 3, with the agency noting there was no further escalation in volcanic activity.

Police have established a no-fly zone around the island and warned people living near areas that might be affected by falling ash to remain indoors and listen to the radio or television for news updates.

Ash fall can contain jagged particles of abrasive rock or natural glass and anyone exposed to it was advised to wear a dust mask or use a cloth handkerchief to cover their noses and mouths and wear goggles to protect their eyes.

Ken Gledhill, from the research institute GNS Science, likened the eruption to the volcano “clearing its throat” and said that while it looked like it had quietened down, authorities could not be certain there would not be another eruption within the next 24 hours.

The volcano is New Zealand’s most active.

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