At least five people are dead, eight are missing and 31 people injured after Australian passengers from Ovation of the Seas were caught in a volcano eruption in New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty today.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told the country to brace for “difficult news” as New Zealand confirmed there were no signs of life on the island where the volcano erupted, instantaneously sending hot ash and smoke 3,700 metres into the air.

At least 50 people were trapped on or near New Zealand’s White Island, 24 from the cruise ship, when the active volcano erupted. Two parties were on the island at the time, and another had been peering into the volcano just minutes before the explosion.

The death toll is expected to mount and at least Seven people in hospital have been confirmed to have critical injuries. The injured include tourists from the United States, Britain, China and Malaysia.

Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas was on a cruise from Sydney and some passengers were on a shore excursion when the volcano exploded into life.

Mr Morrison issued a statement last night:

Scott Morrison statement

New Zealand media reported that one of those killed was a man from the nearby coastal town of Whakatāne who was an experienced guide for White Island Tours.

Former mayor Tony Bonne said: “The young man that lost his life, I know him personally. It’s very sad that he’s lost his life. I know the family, it’s been confirmed.”

A passenger, Tony Hsieh, said on Cruise Passenger’s Facebook page that the captain had said that three passengers are missing. He said a group of guests and a crew member were on the island at the time of the eruption.

A passenger has told the New Zealand Herald that passengers that they were waiting on information from the government to see what’s happened and the ship will not leave port until the missing passengers return.

A help line has been set up for passengers onboard who are missing loved ones.

Twenty-three people have been taken from the island, and it is believed eight remained.  Reports and footage have emerged of the injured covered in ash and burns.

The New Zealand Cruise Association Chief Executive Officer Kevin O’Sullivan said, “Our primary concern right now is with the wellbeing of the passengers and all those involved. We would like to extend our heartfelt concern to the passengers and their families.”

“Our hope is that everyone will be recovered quickly and unharmed, but at this time we have no further information.”

A Royal Caribbean spokesperson confirmed a number of passengers were on a tour of the volcano today.

“We can confirm that a number of our guests were touring the island today. We do not have any additional details to share at this time.

“Ovation of the Seas will remain overnight until we learn more about the situation. We will offer all possible assistance to our guests and local authorities.

“Please keep all those affected in your prayers.”

The volcano, which is a popular shore excursion destination for international cruise visitors, erupted at 2:17pm and a second, slightly smaller eruption went off at around 3:45pm according to local fishermen.

NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said up to 100 people were on or near the island at the time of the eruption but local police advised that the figure was closer to 50.

The volcano is located around 40km off the Bay of Plenty and nearby Tauranga is a popular port of call for cruise ships.

White Island Tours boats were reportedly near the island and five helicopters have been dispatched to assist the situation.

Prime Minister Ardern said there are people on and around the island who are still missing.

“At this stage we believe around 100 people were around or on the island at this stage not all of them are accounted for,” she told reporters in Wellington.

“It is very much an evolving situation and of course all our thoughts are with those affected.”

Michael Schade, a student travelling with his family said he and his family had left the volcano just 20 minutes before it erupted. He tweeted he saw the eruption while they were waiting to board their boat.

Photos have emerged from a camera which was placed in the volcano, of a tour group inside the crater, minutes before it erupted.

St John NZ director of operations, Norma Lane told Newstalk ZB as many as seven helicopters are heading to the island.

“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. This is an incident that is still evolving and we’re still waiting to get the reports from the clinicians on the scene.

“We will get to those people as quickly as we can and get them to the right centres,” she said.

A spokeswoman for Tourism Bay of Plenty said Volcanic Helicopters and one boat have still not been accounted for.

Ovation of the Seas was scheduled to leave Tauranga this evening but is expected to stay overnight.

Norwegian Jewel was expected to call tomorrow, and a spokesman said is was still expected to go ahead.

A photo taken minutes before the volcano erupted
A photo taken minutes before the volcano erupted