Published: Fri, December 13, 2019
Global News | By Blake Casey

New Zealand to attempt risky mission to recover bodies on volcanic island

New Zealand to attempt risky mission to recover bodies on volcanic island

A team of eight New Zealand military specialists will land on a small volcanic island early Friday to attempt to retrieve the bodies of eight victims of an eruption that claimed eight other lives.

"I can now confirm that we are finalising a plan to recover the bodies from White Island tomorrow morning", police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said in a statement yesterday, adding that families would be briefed on the operation. "They will go onto the island, and they will make every effort to recover all of the bodies from the island".

Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement told reporters the recovery operation is "not without risk". "The risk is present".

The risks in sending people to White Island are extremely high.

Royal Caribbean cruise lines has said that passengers from its ship "Ovation of the Seas" were on the island at the time.

GNS Science has predicted a 50-60 per cent chance of a further eruption in the next 24 hours, but families of those believed to be trapped on Whakaari have urged police to return the bodies of their loved ones to their custody.

There were 47 people on the island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, at the time of the eruption.

The death toll from a New Zealand volcano eruption rose to eight on Thursday, with two victims dying in hospital, and will continue to climb with eight victims presumed dead on the island and more than 20 in intensive care with severe burns.

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Officers said the mob damaged hospital equipment and prompted the families of some patients to move them to other hospitals. As panic spread, doctors and paramedics hid, leaving patients unattended, including those in a critical state.

In the event of another eruption, anybody on the island could be "pummelled to death" by flying rocks or overcome by ash and gases in temperatures exceeding hundreds of degrees Celsius, said GNS Science volcanologist Nico Fournier.

"A lot has to go right for this to work". He said he is concerned about the weather, the direction of the wind, and the state of the sea, as they all pose a danger.

While officials weighed how to recover bodies of the dead, some 29 people - mostly tourists who had been on a day trip to see the natural wonder - are still being treated in hospitals across New Zealand and Australia, many in a critical condition suffering severe burns.

The enormity of the task was clear when Dr. Peter Watson, a chief medical officer, said at a news conference that extra skin has been ordered from American skin banks. Two more remain unaccounted for.

The volcano remains "highly volatile" and could erupt again within days, experts have warned.

New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency on Thursday lowered White Island's volcanic alert level to 2, noting there's been no further eruption since Monday, when the level had briefly been raised to 4.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said medical teams had completed the transfer of five Australians back home for treatment.

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