New Zealand’s most active volcano erupted on Monday with at least one person killed and about two dozen still trapped on the popular tourist spot White Island.
Plumes of white smoke and debris were sent into the air, and video emerged with some visitors stuck in a crater. Rescue operations were on hold until conditions became safe.
Michael Schade, an engineering manager from San Francisco, was one of the tourists who made it off the island minutes before the eruption.
He posted dramatic footage of the blast from the boat he was on, with smoke first engulfing the top of the crater and then the entire island.
“This is so hard to believe,” Schade said. “Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before.”
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there were people unaccounted for after the eruption, which occurred at about 2pm local time (01:00 GMT).
“A number of people are reportedly injured and are now being transported to shore,” Ardern told a news conference. “It does appear to be a very significant issue … particularly the scale of people affected, at this stage.”
Those injured had suffered burns, authorities said.
The “short-lived eruption” threw an ash plume about 3,658 metres (12,000 feet) high, New Zealand’s geoscience agency GNS Science said in a statement, adding there were no current signs of an escalation.
GeoNet agency, which had been monitoring the rumbling volcano, raised its alert level to four out of a maximum five. The White Island is about 50km (30 miles) from the east coast of North Island.
A statement from New Zealand Police said there were thought to be about 50 people on the island at the time of the eruption, and 23 had been rescued so far.
“Some of those people have been transported to shore, however, a number believed to be on the island are currently unaccounted for,” said police.
The island’s immediate surroundings were hazardous because of the eruption with falling volcanic debris and ash, the National Emergency Management Agency said in a statement.
New Volcanic Alert Bulletin issued for Whakaari/White Island. This week we’ve observed regular bursts of steam and gas-driven fountaining – seen in this volcano cam pic from 1 December. Current activity still within bounds of moderate unrest. https://t.co/eKom1rhxl7 pic.twitter.com/COBgsgjSIp
— GeoNet (@geonet) December 3, 2019
Rachel Jackson-Lees, a journalist with Newstalk ZB in New Zealand, told Al Jazeera operators taking tourists to the volcano – New Zealand’s most active – analyse the risks daily.
The island also has a container where people can take shelter in the event of an eruption, she said.
“It is not uncommon to hear of White Island eruptions,” Jackson-Lees said. “What is uncommon is the level of intensity. It was classed as a level four [five the highest]. We get minor eruptions all the time but it’s been some time since we had anything of this level and we certainly haven’t had any casualties.”
About 70 percent of the volcano is under the sea and at least 10,000 people go to see it every year.
“I’m not sure if these people were on the island or near it, but there was definitely one group out there and they definitely needed medical care,” said Judy Turner, the mayor of the nearby coastal town of Whakatane.
“There were some injuries and the focus is on getting these injured people back safely and to get them to a hospital.”