Five people have died and eight others are missing and feared dead after a volcano erupted at a popular tourist site just off the coast of New Zealand, authorities said Tuesday.
The blast occurred just after 2 p.m. Monday at the country’s White Island, about 30 miles east of New Zealand’s mainland. The eruption covered the area with ash and steam as several tourist groups were visiting, some of whom were walking along the rim of the volcano’s crater just before it exploded.
Authorities said 31 people were seriously injured at the time, including 27 who sustained burns on at least 30% of their bodies.
“The scale of this tragedy is devastating,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Parliament on Tuesday. “Our hearts go out to the families of those who are injured, missing or deceased.”
Officials said 47 people were on the island at the time of the eruption, 38 of them who were visiting for the day from the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.
Many of the travelers were Australians, the country’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, said Tuesday. At least 13 Australians were hospitalized and 11 others were among the dead or missing.
“I fear there is worse news to come over the course of perhaps today or over the next few days,” he said during a news briefing. “This is a terrible tragedy, a time of great innocence and joy interrupted by the horror of that eruption.”
Other visitors were from Britain, Germany, New Zealand, China, the United States and Malaysia.
The volcano on White Island is the most active cone volcano in the country and lies about 70% under the sea. The site is a private scenic reserve that sees about 10,000 visitors each year.
GeoNet, New Zealand’s science agency, said the eruption initially prompted a Level 4 volcanic alert (the highest on the scale, a Level 5, represents a “major eruption”). The agency has continued to issue warnings about the potential for further volcanic activity on the island, saying there’s about a 50% chance of a smaller or similar event in the next 24 hours.
Ardern praised ongoing recovery efforts on Tuesday, which have so far been hampered by dangerous conditions on the island. She said there was still “significant ash” around the area.
“As we focus on the tragic events of Whakaari/White Island, I’m reminded of two things: There is no limit to New Zealand’s capacity to mobilize, to respond, to care and embrace those impacted by tragedy. We are a nation full of ordinary people who do extraordinary things.”
New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said authorities would use drones to determine how rescue and recovery officials can safely access the island, but he said significant challenges remained. He said authorities had opened a criminal investigation into the eruption to determine if anyone was at fault for the injuries and deaths.
“We’ll look into if there was anyone criminally responsible for the deaths and injuries. It’s early days yet,” Tims said. “So we’re just going to have to work through the evidence, talk to people and conduct the investigation.”
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