Sydney: A New Zealand military team on Friday recovered six of the eight bodies that had lain on uninhabited Whakaari Island – also known as White Island – since earlier this week when the island’s volcano erupted.
A total of 16 people were killed in the unexpected blast.
“Six bodies have been prepared for air lifting off Whakaari / #WhiteIsland and the process to transport them to HMNZS Wellington by helicopter has begun, the New Zealand police said on its Twitter account, referring to the New Zealand naval vessel Wellington.
The recovery team, consisting of eight New Zealand military personnel outfitted with heavy protection equipment, on Friday began the operation to recover the bodies of six tourists and two local residents, Efe news reported.
The operation involving helicopters and the Wellington is being undertaken in risky conditions, given the fact that experts warn that there is a 50-60 per cent chance of a new eruption at any time.
At the start of the day, relatives and close friends of the victims traveled to the vicinity of Whakaari Island by boat to hold a tearful and emotional ceremony to bless the recovery operation.
After that, they returned to Whakatane Bay, more than 40 km (25 mi.) away to await news about the operation, which was expected to take several hours.
The eruption on Whakaari killed at least 16 people, eight of them confirmed dead but the bodies of the rest have not yet been found on the island.
Police said on Thursday that the bodies of at least six of the eight confirmed victims had been located using aerial imagery in the area where they were last seen on Monday when the volcano blew. Another body was believed to be floating in the sea off the island but the body of the eighth person could not be seen.
A total of 17 people remain hospitalized in the burn units of New Zealand hospitals, 13 of them in critical condition, after Australian authorities repatriated 11 of their injured citizens.
Many of the injured suffered burns over more than 80 percent of their bodies and internal abrasions due to inhaling hot volcanic gases, a situation that obligated New Zealand to import skin and tissue grafts to treat them.
Whakaari suddenly entered an eruptive phase on Monday afternoon when 47 people – including Australians, Britons, Germans, New Zealanders, Americans, Malaysians and Chinese – were visiting the privately-owned island located 40 km east of New Zealand’s North Island.