A volcano erupted on New Zealand’s White Island on Monday afternoon, killing at least five people and injuring as many as 20 others. Officials warned that several tourists who were visiting the site remained unaccounted for.
First-responders and law enforcement personnel were hampered in their efforts to search for the missing as White Island was still too dangerous hours after the eruption, authorities said. The island is a small tourist site located about 30 miles offshore of New Zealand’s mainland.
The country’s science agency, GeoNet, said the volcano erupted shortly after 2 p.m. The agency issued a level 4 volcanic alert at the time (a level 5, the highest on the scale, represents a “major eruption”), saying the event was a short-lived one that sent ash about 12,000 feet into the sky.
Tourist Michael Schade, an engineering manager from San Francisco who shared videos of the eruption on Twitter, said he was about to depart White Island when disaster struck.
“My god,” he tweeted. “My family and I had gotten off [the volcano] 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.”
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said during a news briefing about 50 people were on or near the island when the volcano erupted.
“Some of those, at this stage, are unaccounted for,” Ardern said of the tourists. “A number of people are reportedly injured and are being transported to shore.”
Tourists who were on the scene said they saw individuals that appeared to have “serious burns,” The Guardian reported.
New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said later Monday that at least five people had been killed during the eruption.
He added that 23 people ― some of whom were believed to be from a cruise ship known as Ovation of the Seas, which is owned by Royal Caribbean ― had been rescued from the island.
Tims said he could not yet confirm the nationalities of the people impacted by the disaster.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a tweet that Australians “have been caught up in this terrible event and we are working to determine their wellbeing.”
Ardern said the situation was evolving, but called the eruption a “very significant issue.” A no-fly zone has been established in the area, but the prime minister said she planned to travel to the island on Monday evening
GeoNet notes White Island is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, and about 70 percent of the structure is under the sea. Twelve people were killed on the island in 1914 when part of the crater wall collapsed, causing a landslide that destroyed a sulphur mine and a village.
The site is privately owned, but is now a private scenic reserve that allows about 10,000 people to visit annually.
This story has been updated throughout.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misidentified John Tims. He is New Zealand’s Deputy Police Commissioner.