WHAKATANE/WELLINGTON (Reuters) – A New Zealand military team recovered six bodies on Friday from the volcanic island that fatally erupted earlier this week, in a high risk operation watched by dozens of grieving family members waiting on the mainland.
Relatives hug as they wait for rescue mission, following the White Island volcano eruption in Whakatane, New Zealand, December 13, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Military personnel worked as quickly as possible after using helicopters to land on White Island, which experts have said still has a 50-60% chance of another eruption over the coming hours.
Six of the eight bodies on the island were successfully retrieved and taken to a naval patrol vessel, police said. Recovery teams had good knowledge of the location of those six before landing. The whereabouts of the other two was less certain and it was unclear when those bodies would be recovered.
“It has been an incredibly difficult operation but it has been such a priority,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Australian Broadcasting Radio Corp on Friday morning. “We just want to bring loved ones home.”
The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trippers, erupted on Monday, spewing ash and steam over the island. Among the 47 people on the island at the time were Australian, German, Chinese, British and Malaysian tourists.
The official death toll stands at eight as the bodies on the island have been classified as missing until they are formally identified. More than two dozen more people are in hospitals across New Zealand and Australia, most with severe burn injuries.
A blessing was held at sea with the victims’ families before the mission was launched. On the shoreline of the town of Whakatane on New Zealand’s North Island, which lies some 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of the island, about 100 family and local community members prayed and sang together as they watched helicopters enter and leave the island.
Boz Te Moana, 24 and Michael Mika, 28, traveled from their homes higher up the Whakatane river to stand where the river meets the sea and support families gathered at the marae, a Maori community centre.
“Where we come from we don’t leave anyone behind, no one gets left behind,” Te Moana said of his Maori community. “We all move as one.”
Weather conditions, both at sea and on the island, were favorable for the recovery, police said, but the operation took longer than expected because of the extensive protective equipment the recovery team needed to wear.
QUESTIONS OVER RISK
Police said earlier on Thursday that six bodies could be seen on White Island, also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, from the air and there would be “very limited” opportunity to search for the other two.
Authorities have faced growing pressure from families of victims and the wider local community to recover the bodies as soon as possible. The operation has been repeatedly delayed due to the risk it posed to the those involved in the operation.
New Zealand’s geological science agency GNS Science on Thursday put the risk of a further eruption over the next 24 hours at 50% to 60%.
There has also been criticism of the fact that tourists were allowed on the island at all, given the risks of an active volcano. Ardern has announced an inquiry into the tragedy, which will address such broader questions.
“It’s a very unpredictable volcano,” she told ABC radio on Friday. “Having said that, that’s not sufficient in terms of explanation as to whether or not the right checks and balances were in place.”
Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield in Whakatane and Praveen Menon in Wellington; Editing by Jane Wardell