Tourist tweets escape but dozens feared dead from eruption

Top News | AGENCIES 10 Dec 2019

Tourist Michael Schade stood at the crater of New Zealand's White Island volcano minutes before it erupted and shared his terrifying experience in a series of messages and videos posted on social media.

"My God, [volcano] erupted for first time since 2001. My family and I had gotten off it 20 minutes before, [we were] waiting on our boat [and] about to leave when we saw it," he tweeted. "Boat ride home tending to people. Our boat rescue was indescribable."

Five people were killed, 18 injured and several more left stranded after the eruption at 2.11pm (9.11am Hong Kong time) yesterday.

But police said no more survivors were expected to be rescued, suggesting as many as two dozen people could have died.

Police said some 50 people were visiting White Island when it exploded suddenly - hurling ash and rock high into the air. Two dozen people made it off the island, five of whom have since died. The rest are being treated for injuries, including severe burns.

Nothing is yet known about a group which is still trapped on the island.

As night fell, deputy commissioner John Tims said volcanic activity made a rescue too dangerous. "The island is unstable, there's a danger of further eruptions, it is physically unsafe for us to return."

Seconds before the eruption, a crater rim camera owned by a geological hazards agency shows a group of more than a half dozen people walking on the crater floor. At 2pm the camera catches the group right at the edge of the rim. At 2.10pm the group is headed away from the rim.

It is unclear whether they were alerted to flee or were continuing a tour, unaware of the looming danger. The next camera shot at 2.20pm appears to show a piece of hardware, as though the camera has fallen or been damaged.

A "considerable number" of those caught up in the disaster are believed to be Australian, according to officials in Canberra.

In a video Schade posted on Twitter as he sped away from the island in a boat, a huge plume of white ash soars into the sky as a group of frightened tourists huddle close to the shore. A helicopter parked nearby on the island looks crumpled and covered in ash.

"Those are some of the people [our] boat picked up. Praying for them and their recovery," Schade tweeted. "This is so hard to believe. Our whole tour group were literally standing at the edge of the main crater not 30 minutes before."

Meanwhile, in the country's South Island - more than 1,000 kilometers from White Island - almost 1,000 tourists were stranded after wild storms cut highways, washed away bridges and flooded the rugged landscape. They were left facing the prospect of taking an expensive helicopter ride or hunkering down until Friday, when the roads are cleared.

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