KEY POINTS:


• Five people confirmed dead and eight are missing, presumed killed
• 34 people rescued from the island, many with severe burns - 31 remain in hospital
• Police say there are no further signs of life
• Many of the victims are foreign tourists, including from Australia, US, UK, Malaysia and China
• NZ Defence Force to approach island at first light today
• Drones due to be deployed to assess environment

Rescuers face the grim task of recovering more bodies today, with no signs of life reported on Whakaari/White Island a day after the volcanic eruption.

Five people have been confirmed dead after a sudden volcanic eruption struck at 2.11pm yesterday. Eight other people are missing, presumed killed, and 31 people are in hospital with a range of injuries.

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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said this morning: "Our duty is to return loved ones."

The latest update from police, issued just after midnight, is that there is no expectation anyone who was left behind on the island is still alive. Drone will be sent up early today to check the island.

"Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation," a statement said.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island."

Police said they were working urgently to confirm exactly how many more people have died - further to the five confirmed early yesterday.

Shortly after the eruption, a total of 23 people were rescued from the island - several of whom had suffered serious or severe burns.

Among those are the five people confirmed dead.

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A Defence Force ship will approach the perimeter of the island to send out drones and observational equipment to assess what the environment looks like now.

Authorities are also working closely with GeoNet experts and are being regular updates and advice as part of what police dubbed "the recovery operation".

An aerial view of the volcanic eruption yesterday. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times George Novak
An aerial view of the volcanic eruption yesterday. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times George Novak

Among police staff heading to the area, in Whakatāne, today are members of the Police Disaster Identification team (Disaster Victim Identification) division that deals with casualty incidents.

Many of those unaccounted for are Australian or British tourists.

Anyone in New Zealand trying to reach a family member they think may have been on the island at the time of the eruption is being asked to contact the new Police contact phone number: 10-5.

Family and friends from overseas are being told to telephone +649105105 or submit information via a dedicated contact form set up by police yesterday on their website here.

Police said at their request, the NZ Red Cross had activated the Family Links website for people wanting to register themselves as safe or register an inquiry about a loved one.

"If you are worried about a friend or family member following the White Island eruption, first contact them as you normally would.

"If you cannot make contact, you can register them through the website: Family Links."

'Kia kaha' - Australian PM offer support

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been in regular contact with New Zealand counterpart PM Jacinda Ardern overnight.

He said he had spoken several times with Ardern about the tragedy and said there had still been no comprehensive or confirmed information about the wellbeing of those who had been on the island at the time of the eruption.

"We have so far been able to identify a number of Australians who have been hospitalised and will be working further on this through the night," he wrote on Twitter about 2am (NZT).

"We hope to know more in the morning. However, we must prepare for some difficult news in the days ahead."

He thanked "our New Zealand cousins'' and offered support and sympathies to all involved.

This image was captured on a video taken from a boat near White Island as the volcano erupted yesterday. Photo / Allessandro Kauffman
This image was captured on a video taken from a boat near White Island as the volcano erupted yesterday. Photo / Allessandro Kauffman

"Kia kaha to us all on both sides of the Tasman," he said.

Former Whakatane mayor Tony Bonne says one of the people killed was an experienced guide for White Island Tours - "a young energetic man who's lost his life".

White Island Tours' chairman Paul Quinn said the company was deeply saddened following the significant eruption.

"Devastation is an understatement. This is a terrible tragedy and our thoughts and prayers are with everyone who has been impacted."

He said the company was currently assisting police and Civil Defence with the official emergency response.

"We acknowledge the considerable efforts from police and Civil Defence and will continue to do whatever is necessary throughout the rescue operation.

"Our immediate focus is on supporting our staff, manuhiri and respective whānau, who have been significantly impacted and are showing immense strength and courage."

A number of the tourists on the island when the eruption happened were from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship, berthed in Tauranga.

Police have not confirmed nationalities, but there are fears for up to 24 Australians and at least three Brits.

National Operation Commander Deputy Commissioner John Tims told a press conference yesterday afternoon a number of people had burns.

He said further eruptions were possible.

READ MORE:
White Island volcano erupts in Bay of Plenty: 'No signs of life' - 5 dead, fears for up to 30 others
Scientist: White Island eruption was 'basically instantaneous'
White Island erupts: Dramatic moment Whakaari/White Island volcano erupts
White Island erupting: 'I can't think of anything worse' - Survivor on being abandoned on an erupting volcano

Those dead are of a "range of nationalities", he said.

"The experts that we've spoken to have said it is unsafe for us to go on that island. The island is unstable ... the physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island. It is important that we consider the health and safety of those that will return to the island."

Tims told media: "At this stage it is too dangerous for police and rescue to go on to the island ... the island is currently covered in ash and volcanic material."

"We know the urgency to get back to [the] island."

Nine News Australia is reporting 24 Australian citizens were on White Island when it erupted.

Tims told an earlier press conference it was believed fewer than 50 people were on or near it at the time of the eruption.

There were a number of tourists on or around the island at the time, Ardern said at an earlier press conference.

"I know that there will be a huge amount of anxiety for those who had loved ones on the island at the time."

GNS is assessing the situation at the moment and is unsure if cameras on the island are still functioning.

Dr Ken Gledhill, from GNS, said: "It's not a particularly big eruption, almost like a throat-clearing eruption, and that's probably why material won't make it to the mainland".

Smoke from the eruption went around 12,000ft in the air, he said.

Tourists are cleared from White Island after a volcanic eruption yesterday afternoon. Photo / Michael Schade
Tourists are cleared from White Island after a volcanic eruption yesterday afternoon. Photo / Michael Schade

He said it has quietened down, but added he could not be certain there would not be another eruption in the next 24 hours.

They do not believe that all of those injured by the eruption are from the cruise ship.

Earlier yesterday, police said: "While it was initially believed there were approximately 100 people on or near the island at the time of the eruption, we now believe 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."

Emotional families of those affected are gathering at Whakatāne wharf. People covered in ash could be seen arriving for treatment after being transported from rescue helicopters.

"Of those transported to shore, at least one has been critically injured," police said.

"Emergency services are working to ensure the safety of everyone involved, including rescue staff."

Earlier, the Prime Minister said about 100 people had been believed to on or near the island. Jacinda Arden addressed the eruption at her weekly post-Cabinet meeting.

"All our thoughts are with those affected at this stage," Ardern said.

Police were alerted of the eruption six minutes after it happened at 2.11pm.

The eruption sent a huge black and white plume of ash above the vent and covered the main crater floor and over the island.