A New Zealand military team recovered six bodies on Friday from the volcanic island that fatally erupted earlier this week, in a high-risk operation watched by dozens of grieving family members waiting on the mainland.
An eight-person bomb disposal squad was helicoptered in and spent four hours on White Island, which experts have said still has a 50-60% chance of another eruption in the coming hours.
Six of the eight bodies on the island were successfully retrieved and taken to a naval patrol vessel for transfer to the mainland for disaster victim identification, New Zealand police said.
The team was unable to recover the remaining two bodies as the cumbersome protective equipment they needed to wear slowed down the tricky operation.
“It has been an incredibly difficult operation but it has been such a priority,” New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Australian Broadcasting Radio Corp on Friday morning. “We just want to bring loved ones home.”
New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said dive teams have been deployed in the waters around the island, which is also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, and another aerial search would be conducted later on Friday.
“It’s not over yet,” Bush told reporters in Whakatane, the mainland coastal town where about 100 family and local community members prayed and sang together as they watched helicopters fly to and from the island.
The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trippers, erupted on Monday, spewing ash, steam, and gases over the island. Among the 47 people on the island at the time were Australian, U.S., German, Chinese, British and Malaysian tourists.
The official death toll stands at eight as the bodies on the island have been classified as missing until they are formally identified. More than two dozen more people are in hospitals across New Zealand and Australia, most with severe burn injuries.
A blessing was held at sea with the victims’ families before the mission was launched.
Locals Boz Te Moana, 24 and Michael Mika, 28, came to support families gathered at the marae, a Maori community center in Whakatane on New Zealand’s North Island, which lies some 50 km (30 miles) west of the island.
“Where we come from we don’t leave anyone behind, no one gets left behind,” Te Moana said of his Maori community. “We all move as one.”
Police had been confident of the location of six of the bodies as they had been viewed from the air but had cautioned there would be limited opportunity to search for the other two.
The recovery team of six men and two women wore hooded yellow hazmat suits with gas masks and kept in touch with an emergency standby team via radio.
“The environment that those staff encountered was unpredictable, challenging and those staff showed absolute courage in order to ensure that those six people were returned to their loved ones,” Bush said.