Six bodies were taken off volcanic White Island in New Zealand on Friday following Monday’s eruption which has left 16 people dead with many more in hospital.
Wearing protective suits and using breathing apparatus owing to the threat of toxic gases, New Zealand police and defence force personnel began the retrieval operation at first light, despite ongoing warnings of further activity from the volcano.
While the rescue team successfully recovered six bodies – all thought to be those of Australian tourists – the search was to continue on Saturday for two more bodies, believed to be those of New Zealand tour guides.
Authorities said one of those bodies was known to be in the water off the island, but was unable to be retrieved by divers on Friday. The search would continue for the second body.
Police said the recovered bodies were transferred via helicopter to a navy ship, the HMNZS Wellington, and would be taken to nearby Auckland.
“The operation was not without risk but thanks to sound planning and the skills of the specialist team involved we have recovered the six bodies,” New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said in a statement.
“The environment the recovery team faced today was highly unpredictable and challenging. They showed absolute courage and commitment to ensure we can offer some closure to the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones.”
The recovery mission began amid sombre scenes near the island, 30 miles off the coast of the Bay Of Plenty on the north-east side of New Zealand’s North Island.
After police confirmed conditions were stable enough to allow the retrieval operation to proceed, a traditional blessing was held at sea with family members of the victims, as two New Zealand Defence Force helicopters took off from the nearby coastal town Whakatane.
Eight military specialists wearing protective clothing and using breathing apparatus were involved in recovering the bodies, as scientists warned of toxic and corrosive gases on the island.
Police, military and other authorities monitored the recovery operation from a ship stationed just off the island.
Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said the ground operation was taking longer than expected due to the weight of the protective equipment.
Volcanologists on board the Wellington, using electronic monitoring equipment, provided the recovery team with real-time information on the volcano’s behaviour.
Continuing volcanic activity since Monday’s eruption had prevented rescue services returning to the island. A further eruption remained a possibility, New Zealand’s seismic monitoring agency has said.
A total of 47 people were on White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano, when the eruption occurred, including two British women who were among those admitted to hospital.
Authorities said those on the island at the time also included 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Chinese and a Malaysian.
Dozens of people were severely burnt in the eruption, with volcanologists speculating many may have been hit by fierce jets of scalding steam bursting laterally from the volcano.
A total of 19 victims were still being treated on Thursday local time in intensive care and burns units at several hospitals across New Zealand.
A further seven had been flown to Australian hospitals.
With many of the victims suffering severe burns, medical officials have ordered extra skin from skin banks in the US.
Monitoring agency GeoNet said on Thursday local time that the White Island’s volcanic alert had been lowered to level two after it was briefly raised to four on Monday.
White Island is the tip of a mostly under-sea volcano 30 miles off New Zealand’s North Island and has been a popular attraction visited by thousands of tourists each year.