WHAKATANE, New Zealand (AP) — As grieving families sang traditional Maori songs, New Zealand military specialists wearing protective gear landed on a small volcanic island Friday morning and recovered six bodies of the 16 people who died in an eruption four days earlier.
The specialists — six men and two women wearing hooded protective suits and using breathing gear —landed by helicopter on White Island and found six of the eight bodies thought to be there.
The bodies were airlifted to a nearby ship where scientists and other police and military personnel monitored the risky operation. Volcanic gases still being emitted on the island are so toxic and corrosive that scientists said a single inhalation could be fatal and another eruption like the fatal one Monday was possible.
Police Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha said the families cheered when they were told of the successful recovery of six bodies and expressed joy and relief.
“They’ve got their loved ones coming home,” Haumaha said.
The bodies will be taken to Auckland later Friday for identification. The eight are thought to be six Australian visitors and two New Zealand tour guides.
“I’d like to express the collective relief and the gratitude on behalf of our community in hearing that six bodies have been recovered from Whakaari today,” said Mayor Judy Turner of Whakatane, the gateway town to the island, using its Maori name.
Police said another recovery operation was planned for the two bodies that couldn’t be found. They are thought to be a tour guide and the captain of a boat that had taken tourists to the island.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said police divers would search the sea around the island and aerial surveillance would be used to try locate the two victims.
“We do believe that at least one of them is in the water and the other one we are unsure,” but the body may be in the sea as well, Bush said at a news briefing.
“This operation will continue,” Bush said. “We are this afternoon returning with an aerial search to see if we can identify anyone else on White Island and we are, right now, deploying our dive team to search the surrounding waters. We will continue to search for these people.”
Conditions were good for the Friday’s recovery operation, and the volcano was “quiet” as the team worked, Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said.
The specialists were all safe, said Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims, who is also national operations commander. He praised “their efforts and the bravery they have shown.”
Scientists have warned that White Island, the tip of a mostly undersea volcano, is “highly volatile,” and has been venting steam and mud regularly.
The volcano’s unrest delayed the recovery of the last victims of Monday’s eruption, which occurred as 47 tourists and their guides were exploring the island. Many of the survivors were severely burned. Australia has transported several of its patients to burn units back home, and specialist medical teams were heading to New Zealand from Australia, Britain and the United States.
Skin banks were also sending tissue to New Zealand hospitals to use for grafts.
Authorities say 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian were on the island at the time. Many were from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that had left Sydney two days earlier.
(This story was originally published on December 12, 2019)