100 Tourists Near New Zealand Volcano When It Erupted, 5 Dead

100 Tourists Near New Zealand Volcano When It Erupted, 5 Dead

Wellington, New Zealand:

The death count from an eruption at the popular White Island volcano in New Zealand has risen to five with many others injured, police said Monday.

"They were five of those that were rescued from the island earlier in the day," deputy commissioner John Tims told reporters, adding that another 18 people were being treated for injuries, including some with severe burns.

He said there had been no contact with another group of at least 10 people who remained on the island after the eruption, revealing "we're unsure of their wellbeing".

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed some of those caught up in the disaster were foreigners. "We know that there were a number of tourists on or around the island at the time, both New Zealanders and visitors from overseas."

New Zealand police also claimed that it was "too dangerous" to carry out volcanic rescues.

Police said the eruption occurred about 2:11pm local time (0111 GMT) and there had been around 50 people nearby -- fewer than the 100 officials originally estimated.

"Some of those people have been transported to shore, however a number believed to be on the island are currently unaccounted for," the force said in a statement.

"Of those transported to shore, at least one has been critically injured."

St John Ambulance said there were up to 20 people believed injured but medical teams were still en route.

"Emergency services are currently frantically trying to get these people back from the island to hospital for treatment," Whakatane mayor Judy Turner told AFP.

There were particular fears for a group of visitors seen walking on the crater floor moments before the eruption occurred.

Cameras providing a live feed from the volcano showed more than half a dozen people inside the rim before images went dark when the eruption occurred minutes later.

'Five made it back'

The country's National Emergency Management Agency described the eruption as "moderate", although a thick plume of white ash could be seen for miles around.

Several helicopters and aircraft were seen in the area and survivors were pulled off the island in tour boats.

White Island is about 50 kilometres (30 miles) offshore in the picturesque Bay of Plenty and is popular with adventurous tourists willing to don hard hats and gas masks.

At least one group, four tourists and one pilot, who flew to the island on a Volcanic Air helicopter were accounted for, despite landing shortly before the eruption.

"It had landed on the island. What happened after that we don't know, but we know that all five made it back to Whakatane on one of the tourist boats," a company spokesman told AFP.

White Island is New Zealand's most active volcano cone and about 70 percent of it is under water, according to government agency GeoNet.

Around 10,000 people visit the volcano every year. It has erupted frequently over the last half-century, most recently in 2016.

In August of that year the New Zealand Defence Force airlifted a 2.4-tonne shipping container onto the island to serve as an emergency shelter in case of an eruption.