New Zealand volcano: Two of the injured are British women, officials confirm

9 December 2019, 13:14 | Updated: 9 December 2019, 19:48

The aftermath of a volcano eruption in New Zealand on White Island
The aftermath of a volcano eruption in New Zealand on White Island. Picture: Michael Schade

By Kate Buck

Two British women are in hospital after being injured in the volcanic eruption on White Island, the UK High Commissioner to New Zealand Laura Clarke has said.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says at least five have died, eight people are missing and 31 more are in hospital after a volcano erupted on White Island in New Zealand.

Ms Ardern said: "We can confirm that amongst those currently listed as missing or injured are New Zealanders...[and] tourists from Australia, the US, the UK, China and Malaysia."

She added there are still a number of people in critical condition with burns the most prominent injury.

Ms Ardern said: "To those who have lost or are missing family and friends we share in your unfathomable grief at this moment in time and in your sorrow.

"Your loved ones stood alongside Kiwis who are hosting you here and we grieve with you and we grieve with them."

Five people have so far been confirmed dead in the aftermath of the eruption, and police have said they do not expect to find any more survivors.

Around 50 people were either on the active volcano or near it when it erupted at 2.11pm local time.

According to a list compiled by the Red Cross, a 67-year-old man and 27-year-old woman, both from London and an 80-year-old woman have been reported as missing.

The charity group have organised a list for worried friends and family to inquire about loved ones.

LBC News are not naming those missing until we have confirmation they were near White Island at the time.

Two Britons are feared to be among the missing
Two Britons are feared to be among the missing. Picture: PA

Police in the country said that they did not believe there were any survivors on White Island following the earlier eruption.

Just after midnight, officers said in a statement that after reconnaissance flights over the island, “no signs of life had 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,” a statement said.

“Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island.”

A webcam from inside the crater showed tourists inside the rim of the volcano just seconds before the eruption.

Already people are questioning why tourists were still able to visit the island after scientists recently noted an increase in volcanic activity.

GeoNet raised the alert level on White Island from one to two on November 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.

Local police said at least one of those evacuated from the island had been critically injured.

The site on White Island was still too dangerous hours later for police and rescuers to search for the missing.

Police deputy commissioner John Tims said the number of those who remained missing was in double figures but he could not confirm an exact number.

He said there were fewer than 50 people on the island 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.

Police have said they do not expect to find any more survivors
Police have said they do not expect to find any more survivors. Picture: PA

Mr Tims 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 guests from the Royal Caribbean International cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

"A number of our guests were touring the island today," the company said.

"We will offer all possible assistance to our guests and local authorities. Please keep all those affected in your prayers."

The cruise ship, which had left from Sydney last week, was scheduled to sail to the capital Wellington on Monday night but the company said it would instead remain in the Tauranga port overnight until it learned more on the situation.

Michael Schade posted video of the eruption on Twitter, saying: "My god. 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 the island and a helicopter badly damaged and covered in ash.

He said one woman was badly injured but seemed "strong" by the end.

The smoke is seen from a nearby island
The smoke is seen from a nearby island. Picture: PA

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was travelling to the region late on Monday.

She said the incident was "very significant", adding: "All our thoughts are with those affected."

Brad Scott, a volcanologist with research group GNS Science, said the eruption sent a plume of steam and ash about 12,000ft 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, at first raised its alert level to four, on a scale where five represents a major eruption.

It later dropped the alert level back down to three.

Mr Scott said that was because the eruption was not sustained beyond the initial blast.

White Island sits about 50 kilometres (30 miles) offshore from mainland New Zealand.

He said there had not been any major incidents with tourists visiting the island in the past, although there had been some close calls.

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

Ms Ardern said the focus remained on the search and rescue mission for now and questions about whether tourists should be visiting would be addressed later.

"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 north east 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.

GeoNet said White Island is New Zealand's most active cone volcano and about 70% of the volcano is under the sea.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was travelling to the region late on Monday.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she was travelling to the region late on Monday. Picture: PA

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.

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