Eight people were missing and presumed dead on Tuesday after a volcanic eruption covered a small New Zealand island popular with tourists in hot ash and steam, killing five people and seriously injuring about 30 more.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said reconnaissance flights showed no signs of life on White Island, as eyewitnesses detailed the horrific burns suffered by some survivors.
“The scale of this tragedy is devastating,” Ardern said.
Ardern said tourists from Australia, the United States, Britain, China and Malaysia were among the dead, missing and injured, along with New Zealanders. She has said there would be a government inquiry into the incident.
“To those who have lost or are missing family and friends, we share in your unfathomable grief in this moment at time and in your sorrow,” Ardern said at a news conference in Whakatane, a town on the mainland’s east coast, about 50 km (30 miles) from White Island.
A crater rim camera owned and operated by New Zealand’s geological hazards agency GeoNet showed one group of people walking away from the rim inside the crater just a minute before the explosion. Other images showed the explosion that shot an ash plume some 12,000 feet (3,658 m) into the air.
“It’s now clear that there were two groups on the island – those who were able to be evacuated and those who were close to the eruption,” Ardern added.
Later, in parliament, she paid tribute to the pilots of four helicopters that landed on White Island in the immediate aftermath of the eruption to bring out survivors.
“In their immediate efforts to get people off the island, those pilots made an incredibly brave decision under extremely dangerous circumstances,” Ardern said. “I suspect their own personal safety was the last thing on their minds.”