Up to 13 feared dead in volcanic eruption off New Zealand
Unstable conditions hampered rescue workers Tuesday from searching for at least eight people missing and feared dead after a volcano off the New Zealand coast erupted in a towering blast of ash and scalding steam while dozens of tourists explored its moon-like surface. Five deaths have been confirmed.
This aerial photo shows White Island after its volcanic eruption in New Zealand Monday, Dec. 9, 2019. [Photo: George Novak/New Zealand Herald via AP]
After Monday afternoon's eruption, helicopter crews had landed on White Island despite the danger and helped evacuate many survivors, some of them suffering critical burns. But officials said Tuesday they were still working with scientific experts to determine when it would be safe to return to the island to search for the missing.
Aircraft have flown over the island repeatedly, and “no signs of life have been seen at any point,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.
Russell Clark, an intensive care paramedic worker, said the scene looked like the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, “just blanketed in ash.
Flowers are laid on makeshift memorial is seen in front of cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, in Tauranga, New Zealand, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. [Photo: AP /Nick Perry]
The eruption sent a plume of steam and ash an estimated 12,000 feet (3,660 meters) into the air. One of the rescue boats that returned from the island was covered with ash half a meter (yard) thick, Ardern said.
“It was quite an overwhelming feeling. There was a helicopter on the island that had obviously been there at the time, with its rotor blades off it," Clark told New Zealand broadcaster TVNZ. “I can only imagine what it was like for the people there at the time — they had nowhere to go.
“We didn’t find any survivors on the island," Clark said. “It would’ve been quite traumatic for them.”
New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, center, talks with first responders in Whakatane, New Zealand, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. [Photo: Dom Thomas/Pool Photo via AP]
Ardern said that New Zealanders and tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China and Malaysia were among the injured.
An official from the Chinese Embassy in New Zealand said that emergency response has been activated, reported Xinhua. The embassy is working with local police to check if there are any Chinese nationals among the victims, according to the report.
"We will keep close communication with New Zealand's government on this incident," said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying on Monday.
New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency had raised the volcano's alert level on Nov. 18 from 1 to 2 on a scale where 5 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. It raised the alert level to 4 for a time after Monday's eruption but lowered it to 3 as activity subsided.
Ardern said White Island is a “very unpredictable volcano,” and questions about whether tourists should be visiting will have to be addressed, “but for now, we're focused on those who are caught up in this horrific event.”
This May 12, 2019 satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows White Island in New Zealand before a volcano erupted on Monday, Dec. 9. [Photo: Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies via AP]
White Island is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano. About 70% of the volcano lies under the sea.
Twelve people were killed on the island in 1914 when it was being mined for sulfur. 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. The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and daily tours allow more than 10,000 people to visit every year.
(Story includes material sourced from AP, CGTN)