Search and rescue operation underway after New Zealand volcano eruption

New Zealand police say a search and rescue operation is underway following a volcano eruption on White Island that spewed a plume of ash thousands of feet into the air.

It was initially believed there were approximately 100 people on or near the island at the time of the eruption on Monday, but police said new information suggests 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,” they said in a statement, adding that a no-fly zone has been established along New Zealand’s northern coast.

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

Officials said the eruption began about 2:11 p.m. local time on the island, about 50 kilometres from the east coast of North Island, throwing smoke and debris into the air.

“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,” said Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner. “There were some injuries and focus is on getting these injured people back safely and to get them to a hospital.”

She added that there seems to be no danger for the people in the coastal areas, farther from the volcano.

“We believe 100 people were on or around the island,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters a news conference shortly after the eruption, adding that a rescue operation had begun, although it was too early to confirm any injuries or deaths.

“A number of people are reportedly injured and are now being transported to shore,” she added. “It does appear to be a very significant issue…particularly the scale of people affected, at this stage.”

Many of those affected could be tourists, she said.

The New Zealand Ministry of Civil Defence and Emergency Management issued a national warning for a moderate volcano eruption, urging residents to be aware of falling volcanic ash and stay out of designated restricted zones in its Bay of Plenty area. New Zealand’s national emergency crisis centre was also activated.

The eruption made the area immediately around the island hazardous, the National Emergency Management Agency said in an emailed statement.

The “short-lived eruption” threw an ash plume about 3,658 metres high, New Zealand‘s geoscience agency GNS Science said in a statement, but officials added there were no current signs of an escalation.

— With files from Reuters

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