Eight people were missing and presumed dead on Tuesday after a volcanic eruption covered a small New Zealand island popular with tourists in hot ash and steam, killing five people and seriously injuring about 30 more.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said reconnaissance flights showed no signs of life on White Island, as eyewitnesses detailed the horrific burns suffered by some survivors.
Ardern said tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China and Malaysia were among the missing and injured, along with New Zealanders. She has said there would be a government inquiry into the incident.
“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief in this moment at time and in your sorrow,” Ardern said at a news conference in Whakatane, a town on the mainland’s east coast, some 50 km (30 miles) from White Island.
A crater rim camera owned and operated by New Zealand’s geological hazards agency GeoNet showed one group of people walking away from the rim inside the crater just a minute before the explosion. Other webcams showed the explosion that shot an ash plume some 12,000 feet (3,658 m) into the air.
“It’s now clear that there were two groups on the island - those who were able to be evacuated and those who were close to the eruption,” Ardern added.
Rescuers have been unable to access the island, which is covered in grey ash. GNS Science, New Zealand’s geoscience agency, warned there was a 50/50 chance of another eruption in the coming 24 hours, as the volcano vent continued to emit “steam and mud jetting”.
A New Zealand man, Geoff Hopkins, whose tour group was just leaving the island at the time of the eruption, said he helped pull critically injured survivors into a boat.
Hopkins, 50, who was given the tour as a birthday gift, said many of the survivors had run into the sea to escape the eruption.
“They were just so massively burnt,” he told the NZ Herald newspaper. “People were in shorts and T-shirts so there was a lot of exposed skin that was massively burnt.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday three Australians were feared to be among the confirmed fatalities, with 13 among the injured.
“I fear there is worse news to come,” Morrison said.
About 30 people were hospitalized, many with critical injuries, Ardern said, adding that authorities were still assessing how close rescuers can get to the island.
“Ash is obviously significant,” she said after visiting with first responders. “We’ve heard reports of one boat returning with up to half a meter of ash.”
UK High Commissioner to NZ, Laura Clark, confirmed on Twitter that two British women were among the injured in hospital.
Russell Clark, an intensive care paramedic with a helicopter team, said the early scenes were overwhelming.
“Everything was just blanketed in ash,” he told Reuters. “It was quite an overwhelming feeling.”