NZ troops in daring mission
VOLCANO: MILITARY WINS PRAISE FOR ‘COURAGEOUS’ EFFORTS TO RETRIEVE DEAD BODIES
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.”
GRIM TASK. Rescue crew dressed in protective gear yesterday retrieved bodies on the volcanic White Island that erupted earlier this week in New Zealand.