By

Darryl Coote & Don Jacobson

A visitor takes a photo of the White Island volcano as it erupts Monday, in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand. Photo by Michael Schade/EPA-EFE
Dec. 9 (UPI) — At least five people have died and several others are missing in the vicinity of New Zealand’s White Island after a volcano there erupted Monday, officials said.

The eruption occurred early Monday afternoon, and authorities said about 50 people were on or near White Island at the time. Officials have said they know of at least five deaths, but it’s unclear precisely how many are unaccounted for. Whatever the figure, authorities don’t expect any survived.

“No signs of life have been seen at any point,” police said in an update.

Officials said at least 10 people are missing.

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“Due to the current risk, emergency services are unable to access the island,” New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims added, noting the island is unstable and covered with ash.

Most of the people near the island were citizens of New Zealand and tourists from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, he said. All those who were evacuated were injured, some severely, Tims said.

“A number of people have burns as a result of the eruption.”

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Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australians were among those on White Island.

“I have been in touch with [New Zealand Prime Minister] Jacinda Ardern to offer our full support with whatever they need and our authorities are working closely together,” Morrison tweeted.

Known locally as Whakaari Island, the privately owned White Island is home to the most active cone volcano in the nation and is visited by more than 10,000 people per year, according to GeoNet.

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The volcano on White Island erupted at 2:11 p.m., GeoNet said, describing the eruption as a short-lived event that generated an ash plume that reached as high as 12,000 feet above the vent. The service decreased its Volcanic Alert Level to 3 on its 5-level scale, meaning it’s a minor eruption that poses a threat only near the vent.

“We do not expect more than a minor amount of ash to reach East Cape in the coming hours,” duty volcanologist Geoff Kilgour said in a statement. “We are aware that people were on the island immediately before the eruption and we express our concern for their safety.”

Ardern told reporters crews are working with the National Emergency Management Agency. The agency said it was assessing the situation to determine the severity of the threat.

The New Zealand Police warned nearby residents to stay indoors and avoid falling ash.

“Wear a dust mask or use a cloth handkerchief over your nose and mouth; protect your eyes by wearing goggles. Wear eyeglasses, NOT contact lenses as fine ash will get under the lens,” it said in an advisory.