New Zealand volcano webcam captures tourists in crater moments before eruption

(Reuters) - A webcam set up on New Zealand’s White Island volcano shows at least one group of tourists were inside the crater moments before it erupted and blanketed the area in a massive ash cloud.

A crater rim camera owned and operated by New Zealand geological hazards agency GeoNet shows groups of people walking near the rim inside the crater, where white smoke constantly billows at a low level, in the hour leading up to the eruption at 2:11 p.m..

The camera, along with three others from different vantage points, captures and posts images online of the volcano, also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, every 10 minutes.

At 2:00 p.m. the crater rim camera catches a group of people - tiny specks in relation to the vast volcano - right at the edge of the rim.

At 2:10 p.m. - just a minute before the eruption - the group is headed away from the rim, following a well-worn track across the crater.

Slideshow ( 3 images )

It is unclear whether the group, which appears to be made up of around a dozen people, were alerted to flee or were continuing a tour, unaware of the looming danger.

The next camera shot at 2:20 p.m. appears to show a piece of hardware, as though the camera has fallen or been damaged.

Several people were killed and injured with others reported missing after the eruption. Rescue helicopters were sent to the island, which is uninhabited but which is frequently visited by tourists on day trips.

The other three cameras trained on the volcano show a similar trajectory in the images captured at 2:20 p.m. The crater floor camera goes black, the west rim camera shows a massive plume of black and grey smoke.

A camera showing the entire island from the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, about 50 km (30 miles) away, recorded the smoke plume rising thousands of feet into the sky.

Reporting by Jane Wardell in Sydney: Editing by Lincoln Feast and Neil Fullick.