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Five dead, many missing after volcanic eruption on New Zealand island popular with tourists

Five dead, many missing after volcanic eruption on New Zealand island popular with tourists

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See the huge plume of ash and steam after a New Zealand volcanic island erupts.

When Lauren Urey called her parents Sunday, the 32-year-old newlywed was excited. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship that Lauren and her husband, Matthew, were spending their honeymoon on had just docked in Tauranga, New Zealand, and the couple from Richmond, Virginia, had an action-packed day ahead of them.

“She said they were going to the volcano,” Lauren’s mother, Barbara Barham, told The Washington Post. “My husband was joking around and said, ‘I hope it’s not a live volcano.’ ”

Actually, Lauren responded, it is. The Ureys had plans to visit White Island, which bills itself as “New Zealand’s most active volcano.” But Lauren and Matthew, 36, “weren’t concerned that there was any chance of an eruption,” Barham said.

Then, shortly after 2 p.m. Monday local time, as the Ureys and other tourists explored the island, thick clouds of ash started billowing out of the volcano. It was erupting.

At least five people have died and many are missing following an eruption that released ash 12,000 feet above the tourist destination. Fewer than 50 visitors were on or near White Island, which is also known as Whakaari, at the time of the eruption, and 23 people have been rescued so far, New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said at a media briefing. Among those transported to shore, many had burn injuries, Tims said. He didn’t know how many are still unaccounted for, estimating that figure to be in the “double digits.”

The American couple were rushed to a hospital with severe burns, Barham said. Their families have since heard no updates about their condition.

New Zealand authorities, who have been conducting aerial searches, say they no longer expect any of the missing visitors to be found alive.

“No signs of life have been seen at any point,” according to a statement the police issued shortly after midnight Tuesday local time. “Police believe that anyone who could have been taken from the island alive was rescued at the time of the evacuation. Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told reporters at an earlier news conference that New Zealanders and foreign visitors were on or near the island when the volcano erupted. White Island is located roughly 30 miles from New Zealand’s North Island in the Bay of Plenty. It is uninhabited but frequented by tourists.

“I know there will be a huge amount of concern and anxiety for those who have loved ones on or around the island at the time, and I can assure them police are doing everything they can,” said Ardern, who noted that she would be traveling to the island along with New Zealand’s civil defense minister, Peeni Henare.

A number of visitors to the island during the eruption came from the Ureys’ cruise ship, the Ovation of the Seas, which offered an excursion to the volcano. In a statement to The Washington Post, the New Zealand Cruise Association’s CEO Kevin O’Sullivan extended “heartfelt concern to the passengers and their families.”

The volcano began erupting at 2:11 p.m. Monday local time, officials said. Photos of the volcano’s crater rim minutes before the eruption showed people walking nearby, the New Zealand Herald reported.

One video taken of the eruption from a boat offshore captured thick clouds rising from the island. A voice could be heard frantically telling passengers to go inside the boat’s cabin. In another clip, the island appeared to be completely enveloped by ash.

On Monday afternoon, New Zealand’s National Emergency Management Agency warned on Twitter that it was “hazardous in the immediate vicinity of the volcano” and urged people to pay attention to detailed safety advice, adding, “Act on it promptly.”

The same dangerous conditions prevented police and rescue services from reaching the island, Tims said, with experts warning that the area is unstable and more eruptions could be possible.

Barham told The Post she and her husband, who live southeast of Richmond, had no idea that chaos was unfolding halfway around the world — and that their daughter was involved. Then, Barham said, she got a call from Royal Caribbean shortly after midnight Monday Eastern time asking her if she had heard from Lauren. The newlyweds hadn’t returned to their cruise ship after the volcano tour and were missing.

Soon, Barham’s phone was ringing again. It was Matthew’s mother, and she had just gotten a distressing voice mail from him.

“Her son called and said that they had been on the excursion and there had been a volcano eruption and they were burned very bad,” Barham said. “He said he would try to call as soon as he could, but talking and making phone calls was difficult. His hands were so badly burned it was hard for him to make a phone call.”

In the voice mail, Matthew said he and Lauren, who also suffered similar injuries, had been taken to a hospital. Their families haven’t heard from them since, Barham said.

“Obviously, I’m panicking,” she said. “I don’t know how to act. I feel like I should be crying, but I can’t even cry.”

But as Barham tuned into news coverage about the eruption, the shock began to give way to anger. Experts had reported increased volcanic activity on the island weeks before Monday’s incident.

“I’m just livid,” she said. “There’s been warnings about it. ... My son-in-law never would have booked the excursion if he knew there was any chance of them being injured.”

GeoNet, an agency that provides geological hazard information for New Zealand, issued multiple reports of “volcanic unrest” on the island, going as far back as late October.

“Moderate volcanic unrest continues at Whakaari/White Island, with substantial gas, steam and mud bursts observed at the vent located at the back of the crater lake,” stated a report from last Tuesday.

During the news conference, Ardern declined to answer a question about whether visitors should have been allowed to go to the island.

“In this moment in time, the absolute focus needs to be the search and rescue operation,” she said. “There will be a time and a place to undertake further assessments. Now we have to focus on allowing the police to do their job and focus on those who were in the vicinity of the island at the time.”

The Washington Post’s Emanuel Stoakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, contributed to this report.

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