WELLINGTON: New Zealand’s White Island volcano erupted suddenly on Monday, prompting fears for a group of visitors seen walking on the crater floor moments before.
As many as 20 people are reported injured while others remain unaccounted for after the eruption on an island off New Zealand’s North Island, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.
Roughly 100 people, believed to be tourists, were on or in the vicinity of White Island at the time of the eruption, with several still unaccounted for, according to the prime minister.
“It does appear to be a very significant issue, particularly the scale of those affected at this stage,” Ardern said at a press conference, adding she was not aware of any fatalities.
The prime minister said local police search and rescue personnel are supporting emergency management crews in their operations.
St John medical responders said in a statement they believed there were 20 people on the island who were injured and in need of medical treatment. It said it had dispatched seven helicopters to the island with paramedics aboard.
New Zealand’s geological hazard monitoring system, GeoNet, described the eruption as an “impulsive, short-lived event” that began at 2.11pm local time (8.11am in Thailand), sending an ash plume roughly 3,600 metres into the air.
White Island — also known as Whakaari in the local indigenous Maori language — is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, and is a popular tourist destination with a company offering daily tours of the site. GeoNet said about 70% of the volcano is under the sea.
The country’s National Emergency Management Agency said a “moderate volcanic eruption is occurring at White Island and is hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the volcano.” The agency raised its alert level to four, on a scale where five represents a major eruption.
White Island sits about 50 kilometres offshore from mainland New Zealand, northeast of the town of Tauranga on North Island, one of New Zealand’s two main islands. Police were asking people to avoid areas on the North Island that were close to the eruption, including the Whakatane Heads and Muriwai Drive areas.
There will be questions asked as to why tourists were still able to visit the island after scientists recently noted an uptick in volcanic activity.
Twelve people were killed on the island in 1914 when it was being mined for sulphur. Part of a crater wall collapsed and a landslide destroyed the miners’ village and the mine itself.
The remains of buildings from another mining enterprise in the 1920s are now a tourist attraction, according to GeoNet.
The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit the volcano every year.
Cameras providing a live feed from the volcano showed more than half a dozen people walking inside the rim at 2.10pm local time before images went dark.
Source: Bangkok Post