Police in New Zealand said there are “no signs of life” on a volcanic island that dozens of tourists were visiting when it erupted on Monday.
Approximately 50 people were on White Island — also known by its Māori name Whakaari — when it erupted on Monday at 2.11 p.m. local time, police said. Twenty-three people were rescued but five of those have died, and police said late on Monday that they believe the people remaining on the island are now all dead too.
After conducting several reconnaissance flights, Police said they believe anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued during the initial evacuation, but did not say how many lives were unaccounted for.
Emergency workers have been unable to return to the island due to unstable conditions, toxic gases, and falling ash.
Almost all of those rescued had sustained injuries, with many suffering severe burns, Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said during a press conference seven hours after the volcano first erupted.
Many of those on the island at the time of the eruption 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.”
Footage posted on Twitter showed people scrambling to get off the island moments after the volcano erupted. Another video showed the wreckage of a helicopter that had been flying over the island when the eruption happened.
Volcanic Air, a tour company based in Rotorua, later confirmed that the pilot and four passengers were unharmed and had returned to the mainland via boat on Monday afternoon.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern traveled to the nearby coastal town of Whakatāne on Monday evening, saying the situation was “significant and evolving.”
Former Whakatane mayor Tony Bonne told the New Zealand Herald that one of the people killed was an experienced guide for White Island Tours, calling him “a young energetic man who’s lost his life.”
The volcano had been showing signs of increasing activity in recent weeks, and the science agency GeoNet issued a level four alert indicating that a “moderate volcanic eruption” was possible.
The volcano last erupted in 2016, but no one was hurt.
Cover: Surrounded by the South Pacific Ocean, the small volcanic island of White Island lies off the eastern coast of New Zealand’s North Island. Clemens Emmler/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images