Death toll climbs after eruption of New Zealand volcano

New Zealand volcano recovery efforts on hold

Whakatane, New Zealand — New Zealand Police confirmed a sixth fatality on Tuesday from a volcanic eruption on a small island that 47 people were visiting. Nine Americans were on White Island when its volcano erupted on Monday, but with at least seven people still officially missing on the ash-covered island, it remained unclear whether any U.S. citizens were among the dead.

Police and other New Zealand authorities were working to access the island to recover what they expected to be the remains of those still unaccounted for. Conditions remained dangerous Tuesday, with high winds, hot, toxic gases still present and a good chance of further eruptions.

The island, also known by its indigenous Maori name, Whakaari, is a popular destination for tourists. It sits about 30 miles off the shore of New Zealand's North Island.

As CBS News correspondent Ramy Inocencio reports, webcam video captured the moments just before the eruption, showing people walking inside the crater.

As they rushed to escape, tourists shot video of White Island just after it started spewing hot ash and gas into the sky. Plumes of smoke and ash shot more than 12,000 feet into the air.

New Zealand volcano erupts at popular tourist destination, killing at least 5

The webcam video taken seconds before the eruption shows two groups of people, one trekking across the highest reaches of the volcano's rim, and another clustered on the shore.

First responders were on the scene within minutes of the eruption and they managed to get 34 people to safety, but many were burned, some with severe burns both externally and to their respiratory systems.

Among those who made it off the island were American newlyweds Lauren and Matthew Urey, who were still being treated in area hospitals on Tuesday. Lauren spoke with her parents before leaving on the hike around the island.

Her mother said that, had she known "there was any risk involved," Lauren would not have gone.

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American newlyweds Lauren and Matthew Urey, who both escaped from New Zealand's White Island after a volcanic eruption at the popular tourist destination on December 10, 2019, are seen in a file family photo. Facebook/Lauren Urey

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern met first responders Tuesday who helped in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

"New Zealand Defense Force aircraft have undertaken a number of aerial reconnaissance flights over the island since the eruption. No signs of life have been seen at any point," she said.

Paramedic Russell Clark was among those dispatched to the volcano on Monday. He said what he saw there "was like... I've seen the 'Chernobyl' mini-series, and it was just everything was just blanketed in ash." 

"I can only imagine what it was like for the people that were there at the time — they had nowhere to go and an absolutely terrible experience for them," he said.

New Zealand Volcano Erupts
In this image made from video, injured from White Island volcanic eruption are ferried into waiting ambulances in Whakatane, New Zealand, December 9, 2019. Katee Shanls/AP

Police said they had photos showing the location of six unidentified bodies that were still trapped on the island, covered in ash, but given the unstable conditions all recovery efforts were on hold.

New Zealand's geoscience agency has warned there's a 50-50 chance of the volcano erupting again in the next day, and with night having fallen already, White Island was still venting toxic steam and mud.