Sunday 26 January 2020

Six bodies recovered from island volcano site

Mission: Military personnel on devastated White Island. Photo: New Zealand Defence Force via AP
Mission: Military personnel on devastated White Island. Photo: New Zealand Defence Force via AP

Charlotte Greenfield

A New Zealand military team in gas masks and hazmat suits recovered six bodies yesterday from the volcanic island which fatally erupted earlier this week, as doctors worked to save badly burned survivors.

An eight-person bomb disposal squad set off before dawn and spent four hours on White Island, which experts said could erupt again.

Sense of duty: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Reuters
Sense of duty: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: Reuters

Six of the eight bodies on the island were successfully retrieved and taken to a naval patrol vessel for transfer to the mainland for identification.

"Today was all about returning them to their loved ones," New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in Whakatane, the mainland coastal town where about 100 family and local community members prayed and sang together.

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"We know that reunion won't ease that sense of loss, of suffering, because I don't think anything can but we felt an enormous sense of duty as New Zealanders to bring their loved ones home."

The team was unable to find the remaining two bodies as the cumbersome protective equipment they had to wear slowed down the operation.

Police said dive teams deployed in the waters around the island, also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, had not found anything and would be trying again today. "It's not over yet," New Zealand police commissioner Mike Bush said in Whakatane, 50km west of the island.

Pictures showed pairs of military personnel wearing breathing apparatus scouring the lunar-like landscape as inflatable dinghies and a police launch waited offshore.

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 were Australian, US, German, Chinese, British and Malaysian tourists.

The official death toll stands at eight as the bodies on the island are classified as missing until 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 a community centre in Whakatane. "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."

Relatives sat among the coffins of those recovered yesterday, not knowing which belonged to their family member, said senior legislator Kelvin Davis. "It was just an opportunity, as they said, regardless of whether we're from Australia or New Zealand or wherever, that the moment we're one whanau (family) and will mourn everybody as if they are our own," he said.

Irish Independent

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