The eruption took place with little warning early Monday afternoon local time while dozens of tourists from nearby cruise ship Ovation of the Seas were touring the volcano.
New Zealand is located in one of the world’s most tectonically-volatile regions. Vulcanologists said that while the eruption was relatively small compared to other past disasters, anyone close to the site would have been in serious danger.
So far, 23 people have been evacuated from the island since the eruption, according to New Zealand National Operation Commander Deputy Commissioner John Tims, all with some degree of injuries. The five who have since died were among the evacuees.
The deputy commissioner said that there has been no further communication from the island since the evacuations but at least 10 people are believed to still be ashore. However, Tims said it was currently unsafe to send emergency crews to search for them.
“The island is unstable … the physical envicronment is unsafe for us to return,” Tims told reporters.
Tourist Michael Schade and his family had been on the volcano just 20 minutes before it erupted. They were waiting on a boat, about to leave, when the eruption occurred.
Schade took videos of the ride leaving the island, showing giant plumes of thick black smoke as the boat quickly departed.
Casualties from a ‘range of nationalities’
Initial information in the wake of the eruption was scarce, as New Zealand emergency helicopters and ambulances rushed to the town of Whakatane.
“Whakaari/White Island is erupting. More information soon,” announced GeoNet in a notice on their official Twitter.
Photos from New Zealand’s official geological hazard information site Geonet showed a huge plume of white smoke rising above the island on Monday afternoon, local time.
Images from cameras run by the Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences (GNS) of a crater on the island appeared to show a group of people inside the smoking center just minutes before the eruption.
Both New Zealanders and tourists have been caught up in the disaster, police said in a statement earlier in the day.
More than 30 tourists from the nearby cruise ship Ovation of the Seas were on White Island at the time of the eruption, New Zealand Cruise Association chief executive officer Kevin O’Sullivan told CNN.
“Our hope is that everyone will be recovered quickly and unharmed,” he said. The Ovation of The Seas is one of the largest cruise vessels in the world, according to operators Royal Caribbean.
Deputy Commissioner Tims said that the casualties were from a “range of nationalities” but wouldn’t comment further. He said out of the 23 people who had been evacuated from the island earlier in the day all were injured to some degree, with some suffering severe burns.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed on Twitter Monday that Australians were involved in the volcanic eruption. “Australians have been caught up in this terrible event and we are working to determine their wellbeing,” he wrote.
Most active cone volcano
The White Island, or Whakaari volcano, is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano according to the GeoNet website. It has been built up by more than 150,000 years of volcanic activity.
White Island is also dubbed as “one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes” on a White Island Tours website, which offers ocean cruises near the island and a guided tour depending on the status of the varying volcanic alert levels.
The Volcanic Alert Level was raised to 4 shortly after the eruption, and the Aviation Color code is orange, according to GeoNet. Two hours later it was lowered to level 3, due to “diminished” activity in the area of the volcano.
Speaking at a news conference on Monday afternoon, GNS expert Ken Gledhill said that while the volcanic eruption hadn’t been that large, it would have been hugely dangerous for anyone nearby.
“(The plume) went up 12,000 (feet) into the sky, and so on the scheme of things for volcanic eruptions, it’s not large, but if you were close to that, it’s not good,” Gledhill said. The scientist added he couldn’t predict whether there would be another eruption within 24 hours.
CNN’s Sarah Faidell, Isaac Yee, Eric Cheung, Jessie Yeung, Julia Hollingsworth and Pauline Lockwood contributed to this article.