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Volcano Erupts On New Zealand's White Island


A volcanic island in New Zealand erupted today. Smoke and ash plummeted into the sky above White Island. Beneath all of that smoke and ash, a tragedy unfolded. Dozens of tourists were seen walking inside the volcano's crater just moments before the eruption. At least five people are dead, and New Zealand police now say they do not expect to find any more survivors. They had earlier said the number of people unaccounted for was in the double digits. I spoke with Charlotte Graham-McLay on Skype. She's a reporter for The Guardian based in New Zealand's capital, Wellington, and she described to us what witnesses saw.

CHARLOTTE GRAHAM-MCLAY: What we know is very much from people who were immediately just off the island. There were three boats of people who went out to the island as a tour group on Monday. And two of them were full of people who had come off the island, some of them just minutes before the volcano erupted. So we know what they saw, which was this huge plume of smoke going up into the air. People who were on those boats told me that at first, they took photos and videos and they thought this was kind of exciting and cool. They'd seen a little bit of smoke when they were up on the summit themselves. And then, as black smoke and ash started to blanket the island, they suddenly realized that something was actually really wrong.

What we don't know more about is what actually happened up on the crater itself, and that's because there are a number of people - we don't know exactly how many - still stranded on the island. Those are probably the people who were closest to the crater. And we also don't know exactly what's happened up there because emergency services and rescue personnel haven't been able to get to the island yet because they say it's not safe to do so.

MARTIN: So was there any kind of warning that suggested the volcano was active, or was just this totally out of the blue?

GRAHAM-MCLAY: Well, it is an active volcano. And from time to time in recent years, it has experienced eruptions. One thing that many people have said to me today is that, well, in recent years, eruptions have largely happened at night. And that's perhaps the reason why people haven't been stranded or ended up in this situation before. I think that's probably something that questions will be asked about in the coming days and weeks because that's not a great thing to have to rely on for people's safety.

But we do know that a few weeks ago, the volcanic alert for the island was raised to a two out of five. But there was increased volcanic activity noted back in November, and that's why the alert was raised. However, scientists said at the time there was no indication that that meant there was going to be an eruption. And obviously, that did not prevent the tour operator taking groups of tourists to the island.

MARTIN: What's the biggest challenge now to that rescue operation?

GRAHAM-MCLAY: Well, it's really getting it underway on the island. Night has now fallen here in New Zealand, so it's dark. And they don't know the exact status of the volcano; that's something they're still trying to ascertain. So I imagine they won't be able to get onto the island overnight, it seems likely. And first thing in the morning, that's what they'll be hoping to do, providing it's safe to do so.

And while that's the case, there is so much that we still don't know about the people who are trapped on that island. We don't know how many people there are. There could be around two dozen, as many as 27 or so. We don't know their status. We don't know if there are more fatalities. We don't know the nationalities of those people or identities of who they all are. So that's definitely going to be the biggest challenge - with so little known, how they will access that island and ascertain the status of everyone who's currently there.

MARTIN: All right. Reporter Charlotte Graham-McLay talking to us from Wellington, New Zealand, about this volcano eruption. Thank you so much.

GRAHAM-MCLAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: December 8, 2019 at 10:00 PM MST
A previous version of the Web summary listed the host for this report as Steve Inskeep. It is Rachel Martin.