NZ troops in dar­ing mis­sion


The Citizen (KZN) - - World - Whakatane

Moves to lo­cate more bod­ies are on­go­ing, with divers search­ing nearby waters.

Elite sol­diers re­trieved six bod­ies from New Zealand’s volatile White Is­land vol­cano yes­ter­day, win­ning praise for a “coura­geous” mis­sion car­ried out un­der the threat of an­other erup­tion.

At first light, two mil­i­tary he­li­copters set off from Whakatane air­port for the off­shore vol­cano, where an erup­tion on Mon­day killed at least 16 peo­ple and se­verely in­jured dozens more.

The goal of the team from the bomb dis­posal squad was to re­cover the re­mains of eight peo­ple still on New Zealand’s most ac­tive vol­cano, which sits semi-sub­merged 50km out to sea.

Af­ter a tense four-hour wait, while vul­ca­nol­o­gists mon­i­tored live seis­mic feeds for signs of an­other ex­plo­sion, po­lice said the ma­jor­ity of the bod­ies had been safely air­lifted to a naval frigate an­chored off the coast.

“The staff showed ab­so­lute courage to en­sure those six peo­ple were re­turned to their loved ones,” said po­lice com­mis­sioner Mike Bush.

He said ef­forts to lo­cate the two re­main­ing bod­ies were on­go­ing, with divers search­ing nearby waters af­ter a corpse was seen float­ing in choppy seas on Tues­day. He­li­copters were also search­ing over the Bay of Plenty and Bush did not rule out a re­turn to the is­land when con­di­tions were safer.

Drone flights helped lo­cate the six bod­ies on the caldera be­fore the op­er­a­tion be­gan and the six-strong team laboured to reach them in heavy haz­mat suits and breath­ing gear that re­stricted move­ment.

Spe­cial forces com­man­der Rian McKinstry said he was “in­cred­i­bly proud” of the team, who had to deal with heat stress as they pre­pared the bod­ies to be air­lifted out.

“It was a unique op­er­a­tion, but unique op­er­a­tions are what or­gan­i­sa­tions like the Ex­plo­sive Ord­nance Dis­posal Squadron gets in­volved in,” he said.

On the eve of the op­er­a­tion, GeoNet vul­ca­nol­o­gist Nico Fournier said the dan­gers fac­ing re­cov­ery teams if an erup­tion oc­curred in­cluded magma, su­per­heated steam, ash and can­non­ball-like rocks thrown from the caldera at su­per­sonic speed.

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.

De­spite the risk of an erup­tion in­side 24 hours be­ing put at 50% to 60%, Prime Min­is­ter Jacinda Ardern said those in­volved wanted to help griev­ing fam­i­lies.

“To­day was all about re­u­nit­ing them with their loved ones,” she said, re­veal­ing she was on ten­ter­hook for the four hours the mil­i­tary team was on the vol­cano.

“I felt the same anx­i­ety that I imag­ine every­one did at that point.”

Pic­ture: Reuters

GRIM TASK. Res­cue crew dressed in pro­tec­tive gear yes­ter­day re­trieved bod­ies on the vol­canic White Is­land that erupted ear­lier this week in New Zealand.

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