A New Zealand military team that landed on a volcanic island on Friday has recovered six of eight bodies and are preparing to send them back to the capital city Wellington, police said in a statement.
The high-risk operation on White Island, located about 50 kilometres off the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island began after 6 am despite the risk of a fresh volcanic eruption.
“Six bodies have been prepared for air lifting off White Island and the process to transport them to HMNZS Wellington by helicopter has begun,” National Operations Commander John Tims said in his latest statement. HMNZS is an off-shore patrol vessel in Wellington.
The weather, sea state and conditions on the island were all good, police said earlier today, but the operation took longer than expected due to the protective equipment the recovery team was wearing.
“The volcano is behaving,” Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement told reporters in Whakatane earlier in the day.
The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trips, erupted on Monday, spewing ash and steam over the island. The death toll stands at eight as those still on the island are officially classed as missing until they are formally identified.
More than two dozen people are still being treated for severe burns in New Zealand and Australia.
A blessing was held at sea with the victims’ families before the mission was launched.
Six bodies could be seen on White Island from the air and there would be “very limited” opportunity to search for the other two, the police said on Thursday.
Authorities have faced growing pressure from families of victims and the wider local community to recover the bodies as soon as possible. The recovery has been repeatedly delayed due to the risk it posed to the those involved in the operation.
The risks were still high on White Island - 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%.
On the shore in Whakatane, the mood was sombre, yet hopeful.
Dozens of family members waited, looking at the sea for any sign of activity. Families were seen hugging and comforting each other.
There were 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption. Twenty-four of those were from Australia, nine from the United States, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and Britain and one from Malaysia.
Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield.