Written by Jamie Tarabay (Elian Peltier contributed reporting from London.)
The bodies were more than a quarter-mile from shore, some on higher ground, on a scorched, moonlike landscape shrouded in toxic gas. The troops had about three hours’ worth of oxygen, more than enough, they thought, to complete the mission.
But soon after setting foot on White Island, they knew they would need every second they could get.
Eight members of New Zealand’s special operations forces, six men and two women, Friday managed to recover the bodies of six people killed in the eruption Monday on White Island, an active volcano that is also a tourist attraction. As of Saturday, two bodies were unaccounted for; at least one was believed to have been swept into a bay, and police divers were searching the contaminated waters.
The death toll officially stood at 15, not counting the two missing bodies. Many of the dozens of surviving victims were still in emergency care, some with burns covering 95% of their bodies, according to doctors.
Saturday, the police formally identified one of the dead as Krystal Eve Browitt, 21, of Australia.
The troops landed on the island at 8 a.m., said their on-the-ground commander, who was made available to discuss the operation with reporters on the condition that his identity not be disclosed.
A sentry was monitoring the volcano for signs of change in its activity, and teams on boats anchored nearby were in a state of alert, ready for a sudden evacuation. A backup crew of special operations forces, wearing the same protective gear as the team on the ground, was in a rubber dinghy on standby.
“The troops on the ground could feel the volcano rumbling underneath them,” said Col. Rian McKinstry, who oversaw the operation remotely. Where the ground was soft — next to a stream, for example — they could feel the water boiling underneath the soil.
“It would be like wearing an oven mitt and holding a hot tray,” McKinstry said. “You could feel the heat, even as you’re protected from it.”
It took two hours for the troops to collect the six bodies, trudging through knee-deep sludge, drawing labored breaths and constantly thinking about the volcano rumbling over their shoulders.
After bringing those bodies out, the team spent an hour searching for the other two. But the aerial images showing their possible locations had not conveyed just how much sediment and ash covered the area, and they were unable to find them. Team members were forced to abandon the search before their oxygen ran out.
The mission ended 3 1/2 hours after it began. Team members were dehydrated and vomiting. The worst possibility, an eruption, had not happened, but the effects of being so close to the boiling, gaseous core lingered well after they left its shore.
“They’ve gone to the depths of their endurance and past it,” McKinstry said. “They wouldn’t say it, but it was obvious to me as their boss.”