At least five people were killed and many more are feared dead after a volcano erupted several times on a small island in New Zealand on Monday, officials said.
New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims told reporters that 23 people, including those with injuries, have been rescued from White Island, also known as Whakaari, which is home to the country’s most active cone volcano.
Tims said the death toll was “likely” to rise.
The national police force later issued a press release, saying there have been a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island since the eruptions but “no signs of life have been seen at any point.”
“Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation,” the New Zealand Police said in a statement Monday night. “Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island.”
An unknown number of people were stranded on the volcanic island hours after the eruptions as the site, covered in ash, became too dangerous for police and rescuers to search for the missing.
Although the number of those unaccounted for remains unclear, Tims said there were fewer than 50 people on White Island at the time of the initial eruption on Monday afternoon.
“It is unsafe for us to go onto that island,” Tims told reporters at a press conference that evening. “I’ve got to also consider the safety of our people and emergency services staff.”
A 5-mile no-fly zone is in place around White Island, along with a 5-nautical-mile maritime exclusion zone, according to Judy Turner, the mayor of Whakatane, which sits on mainland New Zealand just south of White Island.
“We have been advised that the situation on Whakaari / White Island remains extremely volatile,” Turner said in a press release Monday evening. “There have been three eruptions and there is unpredictable ongoing volcanic activity. The current risk of ash fall reaching the East Coast [of mainland New Zealand] is low to very low.”
New Zealand police are in “constant contact” with the country’s geoscience agency regarding the level of risk of a further eruption, according to Turner.
White Island, located 30 miles offshore from mainland New Zealand, has had regular eruptions for years and remains uninhabited, but is still a popular tourist destination. The island is accessible only by boat and helicopter.
Police said both New Zealanders and overseas tourists are believed to have been on the island when the volcano erupted.
Authorities are working to confirm the exact number of those who have died, in addition to the 5 deaths confirmed thus far. Those 5 people had been rescued from the island earlier in the day and succumbed to their injuries, according to Tims, who couldn’t confirm their nationalities.
Some 30 passengers from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship were among those visiting White Island at the time of the eruption, according to New Zealand Cruise Association CEO Kevin O’Sullivan.
“Our hope is that everyone will be recovered quickly and unharmed, but at this time we have no further information,” O’Sullivan said in a statement Monday.
Those who cannot get in touch with a friend or family member in the wake of the volcanic eruption are urged to register them by visiting the New Zealand Red Cross website or call the New Zealand Police.
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