At the break of day Friday, eight members of New Zealand’s military plan to land on White Island in a risky mission to retrieve the bodies of eight people believed to have died in Monday’s volcanic eruption there.
The volcano is still spewing steam and conditions on the ground are dangerous. But New Zealand authorities have decided to go ahead with the operation, which they have repeatedly delayed out of concern for the safety of those involved in the recovery attempt.
“The risk has not passed,” Mike Clement, the deputy police commissioner of national operations, told reporters late Thursday. “We don’t expect anything to change” in regard to the risks of an operation on White Island, he added.
The eight members of the military plan to fly from the patrol vessel HMNZS Wellington to the island, where they will seek to quickly recover bodies, he said.
Authorities said they know the whereabouts of six of the dead. The bodies of the two others have not been located, despite efforts using drones and other monitoring equipment to try to find them, Clement said.
Earlier Thursday, Clement and Nico Fournier, a volcanologist, had said conditions on White Island, also known by its Maori name of Whakaari, were still too unstable and unpredictable for such an operation, with a 40% to 60% chance of another eruption over the next 24 hours.
The decision later in the day to move forward came as families have expressed frustration at the delay in reaching the island. Two local helicopter pilots who landed on the island shortly after the eruption and managed to rescue people from the shore have said conditions were ideal for an operation they believed would not take more than 20 minutes to complete.
“There is a growing sense of desperation to bring home those we love,” said Judy Turner, the mayor of Whakatane, a coastal community close to the volcanic island. “No news is not good for people in this situation.”
There is also the chance that another eruption will further deteriorate the condition of the remains of the dead, hampering the ability to properly identify them.