Military personnel will attempt to recover bodies of the remaining victims of New Zealand’s White Island volcano tragedy at first light Friday local time — four days after it erupted.
A total of 47 people were on the island, which is 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the coast of Whakatane on the country’s North Island, when the eruption occurred on Monday. Eight people have been confirmed dead, with eight others missing and presumed dead. Another 21 people are in specialist burns units in hospitals across New Zealand, while seven others have been flown to Australia for treatment — with more expected to follow, health officials said Thursday.
Eight members of the New Zealand Defense Force will attempt to access the island — also known as Whakaari — on Friday from naval vessel HMS NZ Wellington.
White smoke was still billowing from the volcano on Thursday. GeoNet, New Zealand’s hazard monitoring system, said at 5:30 p.m local time on Thursday (11:30 p.m E.T. Wednesday) there was still a “medium” likelihood of 50% to 60% of eruptive activity over the next 24 hours, making the military’s rescue mission a risky one.
The attempt comes amid mounting frustration from some victims’ families about the pace of the operation.
Mark Inman, the brother of victim Hayden Marshall-Inman, even wrote to the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, requesting an advance pardon to break the maritime and aviation exclusion zone around the island by launching a private retrieval operation for his brother’s remains. In response, Stuart Nash, New Zealand’s Minister for Police, said “we won’t be giving anyone a pardon” at a news conference in Whakatane on Thursday.
Bodies spotted from the air
“We feel for everyone, we’re really gutted that we can’t get everyone home to their loved ones,” said Mark Law, a pilot and CEO of helicopter company Kahu NZ. “It’s really frustrating.”
On Monday, Law and other pilots flew out to the island in several helicopters — despite rescue authorities deciding it was too dangerous.
“(We) had a hunch that there might be some folks out there,” Law told CNN. “It’s only once we got there that we realized the magnitude of what was actually happening.”
Law said bodies and injured people could be seen from the air.
“People (were) just lying on the island, on their stomachs, starfish, some people sitting, and no one standing, and just covered in dust,” he said. “That’s when we decided, OK, the people here need help, we’ll land.”
The pilots brought 12 people back to the mainland for treatment.
“(There were) people who were horrendously burned, flash burned, their faces were all covered in dust, their mouths were just full of dirt and dust, and a lot of the shirts and materials sort of blown off them, so there was huge blisters and skin that was peeling,” Law said. “You could just tell they were in incredible pain.”
No guarantees of success
There are no still guarantees about the success of the military’s rescue mission. Officials say they only know the location of six of the eight remaining bodies, meaning they will have to search for the other two.
“From the local community here … we feel for everyone.” Law added. “(We) just hope that we can also get these other folks off the island as quick as we can.”