White Island volcano: At least five people dead and three Britons feared missing after eruption in New Zealand

Ross McGuinness

Three Britons are feared missing after a volcanic eruption killed five people in New Zealand.

Tourists were seen walking inside the rim of the White Island crater just seconds before it erupted.

Police say at least five people are dead and that the number of people missing is in double figures.

Three Britons are reported missing on an unofficial online list compiled by members of the public, which was tweeted by the New Zealand Red Cross.

Among those yet to declare themselves alive on the Family Links website list are a 67-year-old man from London, and an 80-year-old woman and a 67-year-old man from England.

This aerial photo shows White Island after its volcanic eruption in New Zealand (Picture: AP)
White Island, New Zealand, after the eruption. (AP)

The island, a favourite with tourists, erupted with a large plume of ash and steam on Monday.

White Island is north-east of the town of Tauranga on North Island, one of New Zealand's two main islands.

The island is also known by the indigenous Maori name Whakaari.

Police said 23 people had been rescued and that conditions were so treacherous they had sought help from the New Zealand military.

Emergency services attend to an injured person arriving at the Whakatane Airfield after the volcanic eruption (Picture: AP)
Emergency services attend to an injured person at Whakatane Airfield after the eruption (AP)
A plume of smoke rises from the volcano on White Island (Picture: AP)
A plume of smoke rises from the volcano on White Island (AP)
Picture: PA
PA

Police deputy commissioner John Tims said the total number of people on the island when it erupted was fewer than 50.

He said both New Zealanders and overseas tourists were among those missing and injured.

Some were guests from the Royal Caribbean International cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.

Emergency services attend to an injured person arriving at the Whakatane Airfield after the volcanic eruption (Picture: AP)
Emergency services attend to an injured person arriving at Whakatane Airfield. (AP)

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“A number of our guests were touring the island today," the company said. “We will offer all possible assistance to our guests and local authorities. Please keep all those affected in your prayers.”

The cruise ship, which left Sydney last week, was scheduled to sail to the capital Wellington on Monday night but the company said it would instead remain in the Tauranga port overnight until it learned more about the situation.

Witness Michael Schade saw the eruption and posted on Twitter: “My God. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, were waiting at our boat about to leave when we saw it. Boat ride home tending to people our boat rescued was indescribable.”

Tourists can be seen on a trail near the volcano's crater on Monday (Picture: AP)
Tourists on a trail near the volcano's crater shortly before it erupted. (AP)

Video footage of the eruption showed a wall of ash and steam around the island and a helicopter badly damaged and covered in ash. He said one woman was badly injured but seemed “strong” by the end.

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said she was travelling to the region. She said the incident appeared to be “very significant".

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