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Five Dead, 11 Missing After New Zealand Volcano Eruption

The death toll continues to rise following the sudden eruption of the Whakaari/White Island volcano yesterday—and there are fears of "worse news to come."

by Gavin Butler
09 December 2019, 11:16pm

Image: AFP PHOTO / MICHAEL SCHADE

This article originally appeared on VICE Asia

Five people are confirmed dead following the volcanic eruption on New Zealand’s Whakaari/White Island yesterday, with a further 11 still missing. A total of 47 people were on the island when the devastating eruption occurred, suddenly and without warning, at 2:11PM local time. Thirty-one people are being treated across seven hospitals, with many in burns units throughout New Zealand, according to Fairfax. Three of the five dead are believed to be Australians.

Speaking at a press conference this morning, New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said that a pilot has since landed on Whakaari/White Island and explored the volcano, after it was initially deemed too dangerous to do so, Stuff reports. The pilot "physically moved around the island rather than just an aerial survey and did so for some time, and brought back that report that unfortunately there was no sign of life," Ardern said.

"To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief at this moment in time, and in your sorrow," said Ardern, noting that the people on the island at the time of the eruption included New Zealanders as well as tourists from Australia, the UK, the US, China, and Malaysia. "Your loved ones stood alongside Kiwis who were hosting you here, and we grieve with you and we grieve with them. For now, obviously our duty is to return loved ones."

Whakaari/White Island is situated about 48 kilometres off the Bay of Plenty, on the north island’s east coast. It is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, as well as a popular tourist destination and scientific research site. Twenty-four Australians, aged between 17 and 72, were on a tour of the island when it erupted.

"We fear of the five deceased persons… up to three are Australians, but that is not yet confirmed," said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, according to the ABC. "Our authorities are working closely with the New Zealand authorities to be able to identify all of those people who are currently in hospital. Some of them have very serious injuries. We know there are a number in critical condition.”

"I fear there is worse news to come over the course of perhaps today or over the next few days," he added. "This is a terrible tragedy, a time of great innocence and joy interrupted by the horror of that eruption."

Science agency website GeoNet, which provides information on geological hazards in New Zealand, classified yesterday’s eruption as a level three out of five, which ranks as a “minor volcanic eruption.”

“Our monitoring data shows that there was a short-lived eruption that generated an ash plume to ~12,000ft above the vent,” the science agency said. “Ash fall appears to be confined to the island and we do not expect more than a minor amount of ash to reach East Cape in the coming hours. We have seen a steady decline in activity since the eruption. There remains significant uncertainty as to future changes but currently, there are no signs of escalation.”

According to The Guardian, the island’s last eruption was in 2016—a “short-lived burst” that did not injure anyone.

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