New Zealand recovers six bodies from White Island volcano in risky operation

Posted at 5:39 PM, Dec 13, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-13 17:39:54-05

A specialist team have recovered six bodies from New Zealand’s White Island volcano, braving hazardous conditions in a risky operation four days after it erupted while 47 people were visiting.

The recovery on Friday morning local time brings the official death toll from Monday’s eruption to at least 14. Authorities are still working to recover two more bodies, including one that was spotted in the water near the shore of White Island.

It was the first time authorities have been able to return to White Island — also known as Whakaari — since it erupted on Monday with little warning.

Earlier in the week, authorities said it was too dangerous to return to the popular tourist spot as the risk of another eruption remains high. There are also chemical and physical hazards on the island.

On Friday, a specialist team of six men and two women spent up to four hours on the island, authorities said. The search team had to wear additional protective safety equipment, which slowed down the recovery process, a police spokeswoman told CNN.

New Zealand’s volcano monitoring service GeoNet said Friday that there is still a 50% to 60% chance of another eruption in the next 24 hours. However, authorities decided it was safe enough as there was only a 6% chance of an eruption in any three-hour period, New Zealand Defense Force colonel Rian McKinstry said.

Related: They survived New Zealand’s volcano eruption, then went back to rescue others

“We cannot downplay the risk involved in this operation,” he said.

In a press conference Friday, police commissioner Mike Bush praised the work of the recovery team.

“The environment that those staff encountered was unpredictable and challenging, and those staff showed absolute courage in order to ensure that those six people were returned to their loved ones,” he said. “It’s not over yet.”

He added that it had been a “traumatic and harrowing” time for the local community and the families who have been directly affected

After news that six bodies had been recovered, there was clapping and signs of relief from the families of those missing, Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha said Friday.

“These families are just so appreciative, so ecstatic, so overwhelmed and overjoyed to know that they’ve got their loved ones back with them,” Haumaha told reporters in Whakatane, the town on New Zealand’s North Island that is closest to White Island.

The six bodies will be transported to Auckland Friday for identification.

Almost everyone on the island at the time of the eruption was killed or injured — and dozens are still undergoing treatment for serious burns.

Specialist burn units in New Zealand are treating 21 people and seven more have been flown to Australia for treatment, health officials said Thursday. New Zealand has ordered 1,292 square feet (120 square meters) of skin to treat patients injured in the eruption, authorities said Wednesday.

White Island, about 48 kilometers (30 miles) off the country’s North Island, has been a popular tourist destination in recent years, receiving over 10,000 visitors annually.