Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said about dozens of tourists were on or near White Island when it erupted in the afternoon.
New Zealand police said at least five people were killed and more fatalities were likely, after an island volcano popular with tourists erupted Monday, leaving dozens stranded.
"Unfortunately I can confirm now that there are five people now deceased from the eruption on White Island," said deputy commissioner John Tims. "A number of people have burns as a result of the eruption," he added, "It is still too early too early for police to confirm how many people were involved."
Last photos: here are the White Island Tour operators rescuing people, timestamp 14:24 (~12-14 minutes after eruption). Endless gratitude to that crew for stepping up as first responders.— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
I took these and reporters welcome to use with attribution. pic.twitter.com/ITmY1jCezr
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed some of those caught up in the disaster were foreign tourists. "We know that there were a number of tourists on or around the island at the time, both New Zealanders and visitors from overseas."
Ardern said at an afternoon news briefing that people who were injured in the eruption were being transported to shore. She said the incident appeared to be “very significant.
“All our thought s are with those affected,” she said.
St John medical responders said earlier they believed there were 20 people on the island who were injured and in need of medical treatment.
“My god,” wrote Michael Schade on Twitter as he posted video of the eruption. “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.”
His video showed a wall of ash and steam around the island and helicopters badly damaged and covered in ash. He said one woman was badly injure d but seemed “strong” by the end.
This is so hard to believe. Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before. My thoughts with the families of those currently unaccounted for, the people recovering now, and especially the rescue workers… pic.twitter.com/mn704hobRk— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Brad Scott, a volcanologist with GNS Science, said the eruption was significant and 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.
The GeoNet agency 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 wasn't sustained beyond the initial blast.
White Island sits about 50 kilometres offshore from mainland New Zealand.
There will be questions asked as to why tourists were still able to visit the island after scientists recently noted an uptick in volcanic activity.
GeoNet raised the alert level on White Island from one to two 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 then 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.
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.
GeoNet said it 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 sulfur. 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.