One person was killed after a volcano erupted on White Island off the coast of New Zealand and an undetermined number of people were injured or missing, authorities said Monday.
John Tims, deputy commissioner of the national police, said at a news conference that there are “likely to be more” deaths. Search and rescue operations have been stalled because “at this stage, it is too dangerous for police and rescue services to go to the island.”
Boats, ships and emergency aircraft in the area had removed 23 people from the island, many of them with burn injuries, he said. About 50 people were believed to have been in the area at the time of the eruption, he said.
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Jonathon Fishman, a spokesman for Royal Caribbean Cruises, told NBC News that multiple guests aboard the ship Ovation of the Seas were touring the island, which in quieter times is a tourist attraction popular with birdwatchers. He had no further immediate information, adding: “Please keep all those affected in your prayers.”
GeoNet, the government earthquake agency, said the country’s most active cone volcano, Whakaari White Island, in the Bay of Plenty about 30 miles off the northeast New Zealand coast, erupted at about 2:11 p.m. Monday.
“We are aware that people were on the island immediately before the eruption and we express our concern for their safety,” GeoNet said in a statement. It said that the eruption was a “short-lived” event generating an ash plume 12,000 feet into the sky but that ash fall appeared to be confined to the island.
The national Meteorological Service confirmed the eruption and tweeted radar and satellite images of the eruption and its ash cloud.
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Dan Harvey, a commercial fisherman who was out at sea, told Radio New Zealand that “White Island had no clouds above it, but there was a burst of dark steam coming out of it, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is going to turn into something.'”
“It just looked like what you see of a nuclear bomb going off, is what it looked like, kind of was turning into a mushroom cloud — the way it just expanded around itself and just went straight up into the sky,” Harvey said.
Colin Sheeley contributed.