In spite of the threat of a new eruption, elite soldiers have retrieved six bodies from New Zealand’s volatile White Island volcano four days after it erupted, killing 16 people and severely injuring several dozen.
The team from the bomb disposal squad has been highly praised for their “courageous” mission, which began at first light on Friday as they set out in two military helicopters to recover the remains of eight people still on New Zealand’s most active volcano.
The volcano sits semi-submerged 50km (30 miles) out to sea at Whakaari, also known as White Island.
After a tense wait, while vulcanologists monitored live seismic feeds for signs of another eruption, police said most of the bodies had been safely airlifted to a naval frigate anchored off the coast.
“Those staff showed absolute courage in order to ensure those six people were returned to their loved ones,” police commissioner Mike Bush told reporters, saying they were operating in an “unpredictable and challenging” environment.
Bush said efforts to locate the two remaining bodies were ongoing, with divers searching nearby waters after a corpse was seen floating in choppy seas on Tuesday.
Helicopters were also searching over the Bay of Plenty and Bush did not rule out a return to the island when conditions were safer.
Drone flights helped locate the six bodies on the caldera before the operation began and the eight-strong team laboured to reach them in heavy hazmat suits and breathing gear that restricted movement.
Special forces commander Rian McKinstry said he was “incredibly proud” of the team, comprised of six men and two women.
On the eve of the operation, 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.
As the military began their grim task, police took grieving families out near the volcano on a boat to perform a Maori blessing and locals chanted karakia, or prayers, on the shore as the island smouldered in the distance.
Despite the risk of an eruption inside 24 hours being put at 50-60 percent, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said those involved wanted to help grieving families.
Many of the tourists who died on the island were Australians.
The bodies on the island are thought to include New Zealand tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman.
The recovery had been on hold for days as poisonous gases continued billowing from the volcanic vent and the island remained blanketed in a thick layer of acidic ash.
While troops were recovering the bodies, another 28 people – mostly tourists who had been on a day trip to see the natural wonder – were still being treated in hospitals across New Zealand and Australia, many in critical condition suffering severe burns.