NZ’s most active volcano erupts on White Island, rescue operation underway amid reports of injuries (PHOTOS, VIDEOS)

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A volcano has erupted in New Zealand off the coast of the Bay of Plenty, sending plumes of smoke and ash into the air. A rescue effort has been launched amid reports that around 50 people may have been on or near the island.

What looked like a group of people down in the crater was captured on the White Island Crater Rim webcam shortly before eruptions were reported on the island.

The images, which have been circulating online, were taken at around 2.10pm, while the first reports of ongoing volcanic activity came only a minute later. 

Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner has confirmed that several people have apparently been hurt in the explosion.

“I’ve got limited understanding at present other than there’s been an eruption, that there have been some people who were on the island at the time, who have had some injuries,” she told RNZ.

St. John, a charitable organization that provides an ambulance service throughout New Zealand, reported that seven helicopters had been dispatched to the island to retrieve the injured. Up to 20 people may be in need of urgent medical care, a spokeswoman said.

“We’re expecting burns, there could be respiratory issues, there could be head injuries, fractures, etc. from rocks or stones, we really don’t know at this stage,” the organization’s director of operations Norma Lane told Newstalk ZB.

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Commenting on the explosion, NZ PM Jacinda Ardern said the authorities estimate that around 100 people may have been on or in the vicinity of the island, and some of them are still missing.

“At this stage we believe around 100 people were around or on the island… not all of them are accounted for,” she said, according to the New Zealand Herald.

The PM noted that rescues have already airlifted some of the injured, who are now being transported to the shore.   

Police, however, later lowered the number of those who may have been stranded on or near the island from 100 to fewer than 50. At least one person has been critically injured, they said.

The majority of those who have been affected by the eruption are said to be tourists who arrived on the island on board the cruise ship ‘Ovation of the Sea,’ the largest cruise vessel on the route.

Despite being the country’s most active volcano, prone to sudden eruptions, White Island has remained a popular tourist attraction, attracting crowds of eager visitors every day on boat and walking tours.

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