A volcanic eruption in New Zealand killed at least five people and left eight others presumed dead Monday on a small volcanic island off the country’s northeast coast.
Police said that White Island, also called Whakaari, was still too dangerous for search and rescue crews but that multiple reconnaissance aircraft flew over the island since the eruption Monday afternoon and “no signs of life have been seen at any point.”
“I fear there is worse news to come over the course of perhaps today or over the next few days,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “This is a terrible tragedy, a time of great innocence and joy interrupted by the horror of that eruption.”
Of the 47 people on the island at the time, authorities said 31 survivors were hospitalized, some with severe burns. Three other survivors were released.
“Anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation,” police said in a news release.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called the eruption “very significant” and traveled to the area Monday. “All our thoughts are with those affected,” she said.
Here’s what we know now:
What happened on White Island?
The eruption occurred just after 2 p.m. local time, according to GeoNet, which tracks volcanic activity in New Zealand. The eruption was “short-lived” and sent an ash plume soaring about 12,000 feet above the volcano’s vent, GeoNet volcanologist Geoff Kilgour said.
What is a cone volcano? The science behind the deadly New Zealand eruption
New Zealanders and tourists were among the dead, missing or injured, Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said.
Police said they were working to confirm the death toll but “do not believe there are any survivors on the island.”
Videos and photos shared on social media show massive plumes of smoke coming off the island.
A Royal Caribbean International cruise ship, Ovation of the Seas, was on the island at the time, the company confirmed. The ship was to sail to Wellington on Monday but instead would remain in the Tauranga port overnight, the company said.
Kilgour wrote that volcanic activity on the island has since diminished. Volcanic activity on the island reached an alert level of four out of five immediately after the eruption but has since been lowered to three, indicating a “minor local eruption is in progress.”
“In the scheme of things, for volcanic eruptions, it is not large,” GeoNet’s Ken Gledhill said. “But if you were close to that, it is not good.”
Why were people on White Island despite increased volcanic activity?
GeoNet had raised its alert level on the island from one to two on Nov. 18 as sulfur dioxide gas increased.
According to GeoNet, a level two warning is means there are “unrest hazards on the volcano and could include eruptions of steam, gas, mud and rocks. These eruptions can occur with little or no warning.”
GeoNet had been providing updates on the volcanic unrest on the island in the days leading up to the eruption.
“Volcanic gas emission and seismic activity continue to remain elevated,” GeoNet’s Brad Scott wrote last Tuesday. “Observations and data to date suggest that the volcano may be entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal.”
Scott said alert levels can often rise then fall without an eruption.
Loÿc Vanderkluysen, a volcanologist at Drexel University, said he was surprised that tourists were on the island given the volcanic activity.
“Scientists seem to have been well aware that White Island was entering a phase of heightened activity,” he said.
Prime Minister Ardern said rescue efforts remained the focus and questions over whether tourists should be visiting would be addressed later.
Where is White Island?
White Island is about 30 miles off New Zealand’s North Island in the Bay of Plenty. It is also known by its indigenous Maori name Whakaari.
The cone volcano is New Zealand’s most active, experts say, and about 70% of it sits under the sea.
A shelter was installed in 2016 on the island in case of unexpected eruptions, according to the New Zealand Herald.
The island has a history of mining but is now a tourist attraction. The island became a private scenic reserve in 1953, and more than 10,000 people visit the volcano each year on daily tours.
What’s next for search and rescue crews?
A naval ship planned to approach the perimeter of the island early Tuesday and deploy drones and other observational equipment, police said.
A disaster identification team was forming at Whakatane, a city south of White Island on North Island.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow USA TODAY’s Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller