Sat | Jan 25, 2020

Dozens feared dead in eruption of volcano

Published:Tuesday | December 10, 2019 | 12:07 AM
This aerial photo shows White Island after its volcanic eruption in New Zealand yesterday.
This aerial photo shows White Island after its volcanic eruption in New Zealand yesterday.

WHAKATANE (AP):

A volcano on a New Zealand island erupted Monday with a towering blast of ash and scalding steam as tourists were exploring the moon-like surface, killing five people and leaving perhaps two dozen others missing and presumed dead. Eighteen others were rescued, some of them severely burned.

Police said that the site was still too dangerous hours later for rescuers to search for the missing but that aircraft had seen no signs of life.

“Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island,” police said in a statement.

“My god,” Michael Schade tweeted as he posted video of the eruption. “My family and I had gotten 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 White Island and a helicopter badly damaged and covered in ash. He said one woman was badly injured but seemed “strong” by the end.

The terrifying disaster immediately raised questions of why people were allowed to visit the island some 30 miles (50 kilometre) off mainland New Zealand after scientists had noted an uptick in volcanic activity in recent weeks. White Island is the tip of an undersea volcano.

MISSING PERSONS

Deputy Police Commissioner John Tims said the number of missing was in the double digits, but he couldn’t confirm an exact number. Fewer than 50 people were on the island when the volcano erupted, and 23 had been taken off, including the five dead, he said. Tims said there had been no contact with any of the missing.

Most of the 18 who survived were injured, he said.

He said New Zealanders and foreign tourists were among the dead, missing or injured. Some of the visitors were passengers from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

“We will offer all possible assistance to our guests and local authorities. Please keep all those affected in your prayers,” the cruise line said.

The ship had left Sydney last week and had been scheduled to sail to the New Zealand capital of Wellington on Monday night, but Royal Caribbean said it would instead remain in port on neighbouring North Island until more was learned about the situation.

The eruption sent a plume of steam and ash about 12,000 feet (3,660 metres) into the air.

The GeoNet agency, which monitors volcanoes and earthquakes in New Zealand, had raised the alert level on White Island on November 18 from one to two on a scale where five represents a major eruption, noting an increase in sulfur dioxide gas, which originates from magma deep in the volcano. It also said that volcanic tremors had increased from weak to moderate strength.

search and rescue

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who travelled to the region, said the focus remained on the search-and-rescue mission for now and questions about whether tourists should be visiting would be addressed later.

Brad Scott, a volcanologist with research group GNS Science, said the alert level on White Island was often raised and then later dropped again without any eruption. He said there hadn’t been any major problems with tourists visiting the island in the past, though there had been some close calls.

Scott said it was not for him to say whether the island was safe enough to host tourists immediately before Monday’s eruption.

“In the scheme of things, for volcanic eruptions, it is not large,” said Ken Gledhill from GeoNet. “But if you were close to that, it is not good.”

White Island is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano. About 70 per cent of the volcano lies under the sea.