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5 dead, several missing after New Zealand volcano eruption

Click to play video 'New Zealand volcano erupts, killing 5 people' New Zealand volcano erupts, killing 5 people
WATCH: New Zealand volcano erupts, killing five people

Police say five people are dead and many others are missing after a volcano erupted on White Island in New Zealand.

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.

Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims told the Associated Press that 23 people have been taken off the island, including the five deceased.

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He said both New Zealanders and overseas tourists were among those who were dead, missing or injured.

He said most of the 18 who survived were injured and some had suffered severe burns.

Click to play video '‘Indescribable’ Tourists capture moment volcano erupts on White Island in New Zealand' ‘Indescribable’ Tourists capture moment volcano erupts on White Island in New Zealand
‘Indescribable’ Tourists capture moment volcano erupts on White Island in New Zealand

In an update provided just after 6 a.m. ET, officers said police helicopters and New Zealand Defence Force aircraft had undertaken a “number” of flights over the island but have not seen any signs of life.

“Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation,” the update reads. “Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island.”

Officers say “at first light” drones and observational equipment will be used to “further assess the environment.”

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Smoke bellows from Whakaari, also known as White Island, volcano as it erupts in New Zealand, Dec. 9, 2019, in this image obtained via social media.
Smoke bellows from Whakaari, also known as White Island, volcano as it erupts in New Zealand, Dec. 9, 2019, in this image obtained via social media. GNS Science via REUTERS

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.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern travelled to the affected region late on Monday. She said the incident was “very significant.”

“It does appear to be a very significant issue…particularly the scale of people affected, at this stage,” Ardern told reporters at a press conference.

“All our thoughts are with those affected,” she said.

In a series of tweets posted late Monday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the incident a “terrible tragedy” and said he had been in touch with Ardern to offer “full support with whatever they need and our authorities are working closely together.”

“Australians have been caught up in this terrible event and we are working to determine their wellbeing,” he wrote.

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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 Hannah Jackson, Reuters and the Associated Press