New Zealand recovers six bodies from volcanic island

December 13, 2019 09:28
Grieving family members hug each other as they await word from a recovery mission to White Island volcano in Whakatane, New Zealand, on Friday. Photo: Reuters

A New Zealand military team on Friday recovered six bodies from the volcanic island that fatally erupted earlier this week, Reuters reports.

In a high-risk operation watched by dozens of grieving family members waiting on the mainland, military personnel worked as quickly as possible after using helicopters to land on White Island. 

Experts said there was a 50 to 60 percent 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.

It was unclear, however, where the other two were located and 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.

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.

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 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 percent.

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.”

-- Contact us at [email protected]