Rescue team arrived were on their way, after the sudden volcanic eruption.
New Zealand’s most active cone volcano, White Island has erupted on Monday with dozens of tourists present. At least 20 people were injured.
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern said the situation on White Island, which is off the eastern coast of the North Island, was “significant and evolving”. About 100 people were believed to have been on or around the island at the time of the eruption, she said, and a number were “currently unaccounted for”.
A number of people had been injured, Ardern said, but the exact number was so far unclear.
A level four alert was issued for the volcano, also known by its Māori name Whakaari, indicating a “moderate volcanic eruption,” according to the science agency GeoNet. The scale runs from zero to five – a major eruption.
Judy Turner, the mayor of Whakatāne – the seaside town closest to White Island – said there were people nearby at the time the volcano erupted, and some had been injured. She did not have further details.
St John Ambulance told Radio New Zealand that up to 20 people were believed to have been injured in this afternoon’s eruption. A spokesperson said a mobile triage unit was on its way to the island.
A police statement said officers were supporting other emergency services and that it was an “evolving situation”.
“We believe around 100 people were on or around the island at the time and some of those are at this stage unaccounted for,” it said.
“A number of people are reportedly injured and are being transported to shore. At this stage it does appear to be a very significant issue, particularly the scale of those affected.”
The news outlet Stuff reported that footage taken from the volcano’s crater camera appeared to show people in the area minutes before it erupted.
Daily tours allow 10,000 people a year to visit the volcano. The company that runs the tours could be contacted.
The civil defence authority warned that the situation was hazardous “in the immediate vicinity of the volcano”, which is 48km off the coast of Bay of Plenty, a sunny, beachfront region popular with tourists. The police have blocked streets close to the water, and the MetService weather agency had warned the local aviation community to avoid the area by plane.
White Island last experienced a short-lived eruption in 2016, in which no one was hurt.
Geological hazard trackers GeoNet had registered moderate volcanic unrest on the island for weeks, before Monday afternoon’s eruption.
GNS volcanologist Michael Rosenburg said at the time that over the past few weeks there had been an increase of sulphur gas from deep inside the volcano and an increase in tremors, according to RNZ.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that this is going to lead to an eruption,” he said.