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New Zealand Volcano Eruption Kills Five People; Others Missing

A volcano that was a popular tourist attraction unexpectedly erupted off the coast of New Zealand on Monday, killing at least five people.

New Zealand officials said they were unsure of the exact number of people who had gone missing or were injured in the eruption on White Island. Reconnaissance flights over the area in the hours after the eruption revealed no signs of life, police said in a statement issued at midnight Tuesday local time.

 “It just looked like what you see of a nuclear bomb going off, is what it looked like, kind of was turning into a mushroom cloud,” Dan Harvey, a commercial fisherman who was out at sea at the time of the eruption, told Radio New Zealand. “The way it just expanded around itself and just went straight up into the sky.”

GeoNet, the government earthquake agency, said the country’s most active cone volcano, Whakaari White Island in the Bay of Plenty about 30 miles off the northeast New Zealand coast, erupted at 2:11 p.m. Monday (8:11 p.m. Sunday ET).

Search-and-rescue operations on the ground stalled because it was too dangerous to approach the island, said John Tims, deputy commissioner of the national police.

Boats, ships and emergency aircraft in the area removed 23 people from the island just after the eruption, many of them with burn injuries, said Tim at a news conference. The five who were killed were part of that group, he said. About 50 people were believed to have been in the area at the time of the eruption.

Tims gave few details on the identities of the people who were killed other than to say that they were from a range of countries.

Michael Schade of San Francisco had just left the volcano and was starting to eat lunch on a tour boat when the volcano began to erupt. He described how the crew on the boat quickly got everyone inside and sped away from the dock.

“It went from nothing going on to it erupting,” he said.

After a few minutes, the boat turned around to rescue people waiting on the pier. They boarded with a range of injuries, including burns, he said. The crew and passengers gathered water, medicine and clothing to use as blankets and bandages.

“There was one woman in particular that my mom stayed with and she just had a hard time all together staying awake,” he said. “For other people it was just trying to soothe their burns as best you could without making it worse.”