World

New Zealand volcano erupts, killing at least five, many still missing

Many more missing, White Island still unstable

WELLINGTON: A volcanic island in New Zealand erupted yesterday in a tower of ash and steam while dozens of tourists were exploring the moon-like surface, killing five people and leaving many more missing.

Police said the site was still too dangerous hours later for rescuers to search for the missing.

Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said the number of missing was in the double digits, but he could not confirm an exact number.

He said there were fewer than 50 people on White Island when it erupted and 23 had been taken off, including the five dead.

Mr Tims said experts had told them the island remained unstable but search and rescue teams wanted to get back as quickly as they could. He said there had been no contact with any of those who were missing.

He said both New Zealanders and overseas tourists were among those who were dead, missing or injured. He said most of the 18 who survived were injured and some had suffered severe burns.

Some of those involved were tourists from the Royal Caribbean International cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

"My god," wrote Mr Michael Schade on Twitter as he posted video of the eruption. "My family and I had got off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable."

His video showed a wall of ash and steam around the island and a helicopter badly damaged and covered in ash. He said one woman was badly injured but seemed "strong" by the end.

White Island sits about 50km offshore from mainland New Zealand. People are already questioning why tourists were still able to visit the island after scientists recently noted an uptick in volcanic activity.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern travelled to the region late yesterday. She said the incident was "very significant".

"All our thoughts are with those affected," she said.

Mr Brad Scott, a volcanologist with research group GNS Science, said the eruption sent a plume of steam and ash about 3,700m into the air. He said it had also affected the whole of the White Island crater floor.

The GeoNet agency, which monitors volcanoes and earthquakes in New Zealand, raised the alert level on White Island from one to two on Nov 18, noting an increase in the amount of sulphur dioxide gas, which originates from magma deep in the volcano.

It also said at the time that over the previous weeks, the volcanic tremor had increased from weak to moderate strength.

ALERT LEVEL

Mr Scott said the alert level was often raised and then later dropped again without any eruption. Over in New Zealand's South Island almost 1,000 tourists were stranded yesterday after wild storms cut highways, washed away bridges and flooded the rugged landscape.

Meteorologists said up to 400mm of rain was dumped on the South Island over 24 hours by a severe weather system that unleashed gale-force winds and 230,000 lightning strikes.

The main highway through the island was closed after the Rangitata river burst its banks. Townships near the Franz Josef glacier were isolated when landslips blocked road access.

Some 970 travellers at Franz Josef were left facing the prospect of taking an expensive helicopter ride to get out or hunkering down until Friday, when the road is expected to be cleared. - AP, AFP

WORLD