New Zealand begins body recovery mission after volcanic eruption

Clay Curtis
December 13, 2019

After days of caution and focusing on the risk to rescuers, police have indicated they now see the recovery as a race against time, and the longer the operation is delayed, the less chance there is of returning identifiable remains to grieving families.

"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.

"The risk is not gone", Clement told AFP.

The mission is expected to take several hours, and there is a risk the volcano could erupt again.

From a ship based just off the island, volcanologists will monitor live feeds of seismic activity from the still-smouldering volcano as the eight-strong military team attempt to extract the bodies, ready to call off the operation if signs point to another eruption.

GeoNet vulcanologist Nico Fournier said the dangers facing recovery teams if an eruption occurred included magma, superheated steam, ash and cannonball-like rocks thrown from the caldera at supersonic speed.

"They will go onto the island and they will make every effort to recover all of the bodies", Clement said at a news conference.

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. 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.

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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 USA skin banks.

This hand out photo taken on Dec 9, 2019 and provided by Lillani Hopkins through her facebook shows Lillani Hopkins with with her father Geoff before the eruption on White Island off the coast of Whakatane in New Zealand.

Hospital personnel anticipated needing an extra 120 sq m of skin for grafting onto patients, Dr Watson said.

Authorities say 24 Australians, nine United States citizens, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian were visiting the island on Monday at the time of the eruption.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday that some injured Australians had been medically evacuated and such flights would continue.

Further, he said two permanent residents of Australia had died, one was missing and a fourth was hospitalised. On the scale, 2 signifies unrest while 5 signifies a major eruption.

The volcano, a popular destination for day-trippers, erupted on Monday, spewing ash and steam over the island.

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