Whakatane, New Zealand, Dec 13 (AFP/APP): 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 50 kilometres (30 miles) 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.
Vulcanologists 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 percent, 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.