Police said there were "no signs of life" after a volcano erupted on an island in New Zealand, killing at least five visitors.
It is thought around 50 tourists were in the immediate vicinity of the volcano, walking inside the rim when it exploded, sending massive plumes of steam and debris into the air.
Local police confirmed the death toll had risen from one to five, and that the number of people unaccounted for was "in double digits".
And around 11 hours after the eruption, police flew a helicopter over the site, but said there were no signs of life.
In a statement, a spokesman said: "Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation.
"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island.
"Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."
Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, said: "It is very much an evolving situation and of course all our thoughts are with those affected."
White Island, which is also known by its Maori name Whakaari, is New Zealand’s most active volcano and is located around 30 miles from the east coast of the country’s North Island.
Cameras showing a live feed from the volcano showed more than half a dozen people walking inside the rim at 2.10pm local time (1.10am GMT) before images went dark when the eruption occurred minutes later.
The eruption was so powerful that the ash plume reached 12,000ft (3,657m) and the emergency services said nine hours later the island was still too dangerous for them to attempt any further rescue missions.
St John Ambulance said that 23 people, believed to be tourists from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship, had been removed from the island.
Of those, five are understood to be those confirmed dead while the remaining 18 have all suffered injuries, including severe burns.
What we know so far
- Five people confirmed dead
- At least 18 treated for injuries
- At least 10 people remain missing
- Island too dangerous for rescue attempts
- Volcano erupted just after 2.10pm local time
- Ash plume reached 12,000ft (3,657m)
- White Island is New Zealand’s most active volcano
Police said: "While it was initially believed there were approximately 100 people on or near the island at the time of the eruption, we now believe there were fewer than 50."
"Some of those people have been transported to shore, however a number believed to be on the island are currently unaccounted for.
"Of those transported to shore, at least one has been critically injured."
The local mayor Judy Turner confirmed that people have been injured, and added: "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.
"There were some injuries and focus is on getting these injured people back safely and to get them to a hospital."
Michael Schade, a visitor to the island, said he and his family had left the island "20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it."
"This is so hard to believe," he said on Twitter. "Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before. My thoughts with the families of those currently unaccounted for, the people recovering now, and especially the rescue workers…"
The agency GeoNet said that a moderate volcanic eruption had occurred and raised its alert level to four, on a scale where five represents a major volcanic eruption.
White Island is a small, uninhabited island located northeast of the North Island town of Tauranga.
The island is regularly visited by small groups of tourists.
New Zealand’s national emergency management agency said: “A volcanic eruption is occurring at White Island and is hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the volcano.”
A witness told the New Zealand Herald that he was fishing with some friends about 40km from the island when he saw dark smoke erupting before 2.15pm.
"I looked over and saw a burst of steam coming up,” Dan Harvey said. “There was nothing above the island at that time. It was just clear blue sky. It was unusual to see it go from nothing to steam erupting out of it.
"It was almost like a mushroom cloud … the steam was expanding and getting bigger.
"I knew it was odd because there was nothing above it. Often it’s doing this small continuous release of steam. But it wasn’t doing anything then all of a sudden this massive amount of cloud comes out.”
Harvey said it’s still erupting steam but it was nothing like it was when it first erupted. He added that it happened so quickly and fast that if there were anyone on the island it wouldn’t be good.”
Authorities are warning local people to avoid ashfall and to stay indoors.
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