The bodies of the last two people missing from last week’s eruption of a New Zealand volcano may never be recovered, police said Wednesday.
Sixteen bodies have been recovered so far from White Island, where the volcano erupted without warning last Monday. But emergency teams have been unable to locate the bodies of two others who remain missing and are presumed dead: 40-year-old tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman, and 17-year-old Australian tourist Winona Langford.
Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement told reporters that the bodies of the two missing people were believed to have been washed out to sea after slipping into a stream on the volcano. He said a dive squad and helicopters would continue their search for another day or so, using tidal modeling to identify their potential locations, before the official search wound down.
“The reality is, we have to wait for Mother Nature to produce those bodies, and it may and it may not. And the reality is, we'll be here if it does,” he said.
“We are deeply sorry that we haven’t until this time been able to recover the bodies… We are literally in the hands of the sea.”
Of the 47 people who were on the island when the volcano erupted on Dec. 9, eight were not able to make it off the island, which is also known by its Maori name, Whakaari. The dangerous conditions on the island — and the risk of it erupting again during a recovery operation — meant special forces soldiers were unable to return to the island until Dec. 13, when, wearing three layers of special protective clothing, they were able to retrieve six of the missing bodies.
The family of Marshall-Inman have been critical of the delay in launching the recovery operation. “I still believe time was of the essence and things could have moved a bit quicker,” Mark Inman, the missing man’s brother, told local media.
Clement said police divers were "within meters" of recovering Marshall-Inman's body during a suspected sighting in the water near Whakaari's jetty on Dec. 11 but that conditions in the water made it too dangerous to get close. The eruption had made the waters surrounding the volcano highly acidic, meaning divers needed heavy protection to enter the water, and visibility is poor.
"The reality was the conditions of the ocean meant they could not get close," Clement said.
“The people on that day have thought long and hard about that… They're disappointed. They backed themselves to retrieve a body and they missed out.”
Scientists say the volcano is in an active phase, with a 20% to 40% chance of erupting in the next 24 hours.
Most of the victims who have been named so far were tourists from Australia, while two were New Zealand citizens. Dozens of people remain in hospital receiving treatment for their injuries, with many suffering burned lungs from inhaling toxic volcanic ash and sulfur dioxide, along with severe burns to their bodies.
Hospitals had to import hundreds of square feet of human skin from international skin banks to treat the wounded, most of whom had burns to at least 30 percent of their bodies.
The disaster has prompted questions about how the active volcano had been allowed to become a tourist attraction, with about 10,000 people visiting the island each day.
Cover: Police divers prepare to search the waters near White Island off the coast of Whakatane, New Zealand, Saturday Dec. 14, 2019. A team of nine from the Police National Dive Squad resumed their search at early Saturday for a body seen in the water following Monday's volcanic eruption. (New Zealand Police via AP)