WHAKATANE: A team of elite New Zealand soldiers succeeded in retrieving six bodies from the volatile White Island volcano on Friday, in a mission carried out under the ever-present threat of another eruption.
The operation began at first light when two military helicopters set off from Whakatane airport for the offshore volcano, where an eruption last Monday killed at least 16 people and severely injured dozens more.
The eight-strong team was dispatched to recover the remains of eight people still on New Zealand’s most active volcano, which sits semi-submerged 50km out to sea.
After a tense wait of more than five hours, police said they had safely airlifted six bodies to a naval frigate anchored off the coast.
“I would like to acknowledge the recovery team for their efforts and the bravery they have shown today,“ deputy police commissioner John Tims said in a statement.
Many of the tourists who died on the island were Australians and Canberra’s Foreign Minister Marise Payne said the New Zealanders had indicated they would not give up on trying to return the remaining two bodies to their families.
“But we do understand this has been a catastrophic event on White Island ... This is a time of absolute desperation and distress and to every single one of those families and their friends and their loved ones,“ she said.
Drone flights had helped locate the six bodies before the operation began and they were the team’s priority as they laboured on the island in heavy protective gear that slowed them down and restricted movement.
Volcanologists monitored live feeds from the mountain, ready to abort the operation if signs pointed to another eruption.
Despite the chance of an eruption inside 24 hours being put at 60%, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the mission was being carried out to bring home grieving families’ loved ones.
“It has been an incredibly difficult operation but it’s been such a priority. We just want to bring everybody home,“ she told Australia’s ABC Radio.
As the military began their grim task, police took grieving families out near the volcano on a boat to perform a Maori blessing and locals chanted karakia, or prayers, on the shore as the island smouldered in the distance.
‘A job to do’
During the mission, White Island was at “Alert level 2” — the highest before an eruption.
“Of course I’m worried. I would be inhuman if I did not worry,“ Clement said on the eve of the mission, adding “we have a job to do.”
“People are putting themselves on the front line to do the right thing ... our thoughts and our prayers and our love will be with them,“ Clement said.
The bodies on the island are thought to include New Zealand tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman.
His brother Mark Inman had epitomised relatives’ frustrations with stalled recovery efforts, criticising “red tape, bureaucracy” but on Friday he praised the daring recovery attempt.
“It’s going to allow us to grieve and send our loved ones off in the manner they deserve,“ he told the New Zealand Herald.
The recovery had been on hold for days as poisonous gases continued to billowing from the volcanic vent and the island remained blanketed in a thick layer of acidic ash.
GeoNet volcanologist Nico Fournier said the dangers facing recovery teams if an eruption occurred included magma, superheated steam, ash and cannonball-like rocks thrown from the caldera at supersonic speed.
While troops were recovering the bodies, another 28 people — mostly tourists who had been on a day trip to see the natural wonder — were still being treated in hospitals across New Zealand and Australia, many in critical condition suffering severe burns.
The survivors’ injuries are so severe New Zealand doctors initially estimated they would need to import 1.2 million cm² of skin for grafts.
A total of 47 people were on the island during the eruption, hailing from Australia, the United States, Britain, China, Germany, Malaysia and New Zealand.
While Australian officials have only confirmed one dead, they say a further 10 were missing and presumed to have perished.
A coronial process has begun to identify those confirmed dead but police have said it could “take some time”. — AFP