New Zealand Police fear there are no survivors left on Whakaari, or White Island, after Monday’s volcanic eruption off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island.
In a statement released late on Monday, police said “No signs of life have been seen at any point” by aerial patrols above the island and that “based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island”.
“The Police Eagle helicopter, rescue helicopter, and NZDF aircraft have undertaken a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island since the eruption,” the statement read.
“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.”
Unable to step foot on the “unstable” island, police said they were “working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased”.
This is so hard to believe. Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before. My thoughts with the families of those currently unaccounted for, the people recovering now, and especially the rescue workers… pic.twitter.com/mn704hobRk
— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Police continue to receive information and advice from GeoNet experts to support the recovery operation.
A NZDF ship will approach the perimeter of the island at first light to deploy drones and observational equipment to further assess the environment that has been been deemed too dangerous.
The Police Disaster Identification (DVI) team is assembling in Whakatane to await deployment.
Both New Zealanders and overseas tourists are believed to be involved, and a number were from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship.
Members of the public have been invited to submit information about friends or family who might have been visiting White Island during the eruption. People from overseas can call +64 9105 105.
They can also use the online form at the police website.
New Zealand Red Cross has activated the Family Links website for people wanting to register themselves as safe or register an inquiry about a loved one.
A terrible tragedy is unfolding in NZ after the volcano eruption on Whakaari/White Island. Australians have been caught up in this terrible event and we are working to determine their wellbeing.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) December 9, 2019
Earlier, police confirmed that five people died and many were still missing after the volcano erupted about 2.11pm local time, sending plumes of white smoke and ash 12,000 feet (3650 metres) into the air.
Police confirmed 23 people had been rescued from the island.
“Some of those people have been transported to shore. However, a number believed to be on the island are currently unaccounted for,” they said in a statement.
“Of those transported to shore, at least one has been critically injured.”
Initially there were fears that up to 100 people were on Whakaari when it erupted.
However, NZ Police said later that number was thought to be fewer than 50 – and up to 20 of them required medical treatment after the blast.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison tweeted just after 6pm, AEDT, that Australians had been caught up in the tragedy.
Norma Lane from St John NZ told ABC News the injured with “significant burns” were evacuated by boats and helicopter and transported to intensive care units in seven main hospitals across the country.
10 Daily reports that the captain of the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship had told passengers a group of tourists and one crew member were on the island when the volcano erupted.
Parent company Royal Caribbean issued a statement saying the ship, which originated in Sydney, will stay in the nearby port of Tauranga overnight “until we learn more about the situation”.
The New Zealand Herald published images of people on stretchers being evacuated from the island, which is about 40 kilometres off the shore of the Bay of Plenty.
The paper said that emotional families of those affected were gathering at the wharf at Whakatane, the nearest mainland town.
People covered in ash can be seen getting off the rescue helicopters.
Last photos: here are the White Island Tour operators rescuing people, timestamp 14:24 (~12-14 minutes after eruption). Endless gratitude to that crew for stepping up as first responders.
I took these and reporters welcome to use with attribution. pic.twitter.com/ITmY1jCezr
— Michael Schade (@sch) December 9, 2019
Michael Schade wrote on social media that he was on White Island when the eruption happened.
“My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it,” he said.
“Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable.”
He said his mother had helped a woman who had serious injuries “but [she] seemed strong by the end [of the boat journey].
Norma Lane, director of operations for New Zealand’s St John ambulance service, told local radio up to seven helicopters were heading to White Island.
“We’re expecting burns, there could be respiratory issues, there could be head injuries, fractures, etc. from rocks or stones – we really don’t know at this stage,” she said.
“This is an incident that is still evolving and we’re still waiting to get the reports from the clinicians on the scene.
“We will get to those people as quickly as we can and get them to the right centres.”
Many of the people on the privately owned island at the time of the explosion were apparently from a cruise ship that had docked at the nearby Port of Tauranga.
The island is frequently visited by tourists as part of tours.
Police is working with National Emergency Management Agency to coordinate a search and rescue operation following a volcanic eruption at White Island this afternoon – https://t.co/BtQEltPOYE #whiteisland pic.twitter.com/h4dbVmMgtE
— New Zealand Police (@nzpolice) December 9, 2019
Authorities have urged people to stay away from White Island, which is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano. The country has also activated its national emergency crisis centre.
Geological hazard tracker GeoNet had registered moderate volcanic unrest on the island for weeks.
“We are aware that people were on the island immediately before the eruption and we express our concern for their safety,” GeoNet said on Monday afternoon.
The White Island Crater Rim camera, held by GeoNet, showed a string of people visiting the crater when the eruption occurred.
Subsequent shots from the camera, displayed online every 10 minutes, show the blast rendered the camera inoperable.