A total of 47 people — including tourists from Royal Caribbean's Ovation of the Seas cruise ship — were on White Island at the time of the fatal eruption, authorities said

By Joelle Goldstein
December 09, 2019 03:40 PM
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At least five people have been confirmed dead after New Zealand’s most active volcano erupted on Monday afternoon.

New Zealand Police said the incident, which occurred just before 2:15 p.m. local time on White Island, left 31 people hospitalized, while eight others still remain unaccounted for in the wake of the eruption.

Those still missing are believed to be dead, according to a press release from NZP, which said authorities have been tirelessly searching the island with rescue helicopters and that “no signs of life have been seen at any point.”

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

A total of 47 people, including natives and overseas tourists, were on the island when the fatal eruption happened on Monday afternoon. Of those people, 38 were passengers and a crew member from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship, which is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, police said.

“We are devastated by today’s events and our hearts go out to all those affected by this tragedy,” Royal Caribbean said in a statement to CNN. “We are working together with local authorities, and we are providing all the help and care we can to our guests and their families, including offering medical resources and counseling. We are also sending staff members from both our ship and our Sydney and Auckland offices to assist family members however possible. Ovation of the Seas will remain in port as long as needed to assist with the situation.”

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Volcano in New Zealand
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After the eruption, authorities said survivors were transported to seven hospitals across the country, including Whakatane Hospital and Middlemore Hospital, for “specialist care.” Three patients have since been released from Whakatane Hospital, but no identities have been released.

“The family and loved ones of those involved are front of mind for Police,” the NZP spokesperson said. “Support is being put in place and Police are working to provide them with information as it becomes available.”

Shortly after the incident, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern held a press conference, where she addressed the situation and confirmed that police were actively searching for those still unaccounted for.

“I know there will be a huge amount of concern and anxiety for those who have ones on or around the island at the time and I can assure them that police are doing everything they can,” she said.

Authorities at the conference explained that the conditions on the island were “too dangerous” for rescuers, as the land was “covered in ash and volcanic material,” but that they were using aerial assistance and assessing the situation with experts.

When asked if the island, which is also known as Whakaari, was safe for tourists to be on (given the volcano’s reputation for being so active), Ardern said authorities’ main focus was the search and rescue operations.

She also added that there is a “time and place to undertake further assessments,” but that “police will be factoring in the risk of further eruption” as they continue to look for survivors.

In the wake of the incident, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke out on Twitter and sent his condolences to the people who were affected, including the Australians who were on the cruise ship tour group.

“We have so far been able to identify a number of Australians who have been hospitalized and will be working further on this through the night,” he tweeted on Monday. “We hope to know more in the morning, however, we must prepare for some difficult news in the days ahead.”

“[Wife] Jenny and I extend our love to all the individuals and families affected. This is a terrible and anxious time for them,” he continued. “Thank you to all those who put themselves at risk today to protect and save others, and those now caring for the injured.”

“I also thank our NZ cousins for their cooperation and assistance,” added Morrison. “This is a very difficult time for them and we extend our deepest sympathies.”

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GeoNet, a site that provides geological hazard information for New Zealand, announced that they suspended the broadcast of their webcams of the volcanic eruption, as well as photos of the moments before the incident amid rescue operations.

White Island is New Zealand’s most active volcano, according to GeoNet. More than 10,000 people visit the volcano every year, despite its activity, GeoNet said.

The volcano has previously erupted in 2016, 2012, and from December 1975 to September 2000, which was the longest historic eruption episode, GeoNet reports.