No signs of life on New Zealand volcanic island after eruption

A volcanic island in New Zealand erupted Monday in a tower of ash and steam while dozens of tourists were exploring the moon-like surface, killing five people and leaving more missing.

The island is too unstable to search, police said, but a helicopter surveyed the area. “Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island,” police said in a statement.

Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims had previously said the number of missing was in the double digits, but couldn’t confirm an exact number. He said there were fewer than 50 people on the island when it erupted and 23 had been taken off, including the five dead.

Tims said there had been no contact with any of the missing.

He said both New Zealanders and overseas tourists were among those who were dead, missing or injured. Most of the 18 survivors were injured, and some had suffered severe burns, he said.

WATCH: See the plume of smoke and ash

See the huge plume of ash and steam after a New Zealand volcanic island erupts 0:59

Tristan Webb, director with a skydiving company in New Zealand, saw the eruption from above.

“When we exited the aircraft, pretty much immediately we could see the plume, almost beginning to envelop the entire island,” Webb told CBC News Network.

There were no signs Monday the “steady stream of smoke that we constantly see off the island was any more or any less than what it normally would be,” Webb said. “But it was just very rapid in terms of the way it expanded.”

Some of those involved were tourists from the Royal Caribbean International cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

“A number of our guests were touring the island today,” the company said. “We will offer all possible assistance to our guests and local authorities. Please keep all those affected in your prayers.”

White Island is northeast 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.

‘My stomach just dropped’

Canadian Syvlain Plasse is aboard a cruise ship that carried some of the tourists who had ventured to the volcano. 

Plasse, who saw signs of the eruption from Tauranga, said “my stomach just dropped” when he heard the captain’s announcement about what had happened.

“It hurts when you think that these people you just talked to last night might be gone now.”

Tour guides evacuate tourists on a boat shortly after the volcano eruption. (@SCH/Reuters)

The cruise ship, which had left from Sydney last week, was scheduled to sail to the capital Wellington on Monday night, but the company said it would instead remain in the Tauranga port overnight until it learned more on the situation.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who travelled to the region late Monday, said the incident is “very significant.”

Brad Scott, a volcanologist with GNS Science, said the eruption sent a plume of steam and ash about 3,660 metres into the air. He said it had also affected the whole of the White Island crater floor.

GeoNet raised the alert level on White Island from 1 to 2 on Nov. 18, noting an increase in the amount of sulfur 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 later dropped again without any eruption. He said there hadn’t 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.

Erik Klemetti, an associate professor of geosciences at Denison University who studies volcanoes, said White Island is the crater of a “fairly active” volcano.

Klemetti told CBC News Network it was a “gut punch” when he heard of the deadly eruption, noting he’d had concerns something like this might happen on the island.

Klemetti noted Monday that while scientists can see signs of unrest, there are “a lot of styles of volcanic eruption, and some of them come really without warning.”  

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