A New Zealand Rescue Team Will Risk Their Lives to Bring Back Volcano Victims' Bodies

Experts are warning there's a significant chance the volcano could erupt again, but victims' families have been outraged by the government's slow response.

by David Gilbert
13 December 2019, 4:37am

A rescue team will risk their lives in an early morning operation to the White Island volcano on Friday to retrieve the bodies of the victims of Monday’s eruption.

Authorities made the decision to deploy the team after angry outbursts from the families of those missing and presumed dead, who hit out at the government’s failure to recover their loved ones’ remains.

The announcement came alongside the grim news that two more of those rescued from the island on Monday had succumbed to their injuries in the early hours of Thursday morning, bringing the confirmed death toll to eight so far — the youngest a 13-year-old Australian schoolboy.

At first light on Friday morning, a team of eight military specialists will land on the island, even though scientists have warned that the conditions remain treacherous and another eruption is possible.

“They will go on to the island, making every effort to recover the bodies and return to the mainland,” Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement told a news conference late on Thursday. “I have to emphasize that the risk has not gone. The risk is present.”

New Zealand’s earth-science research and monitoring body GNS Science warned the volcano remained at heightened risk, with a 50 to 60 percent chance of another eruption in the next 24 hours.

Steam and mud continue to leak from its active vents and volcanic tremors are rising, volcanologists told AP.

Assisting those who will make the treacherous landing will be a team made up of police, military, and volcano experts who will be stationed close by on the HMNZS Wellington.

Reconnaissance flights have so far only located the bodies of six of the eight missing people, and authorities said at a press conference Friday they would focus on first recovering those remains.

The recovery effort was delayed due to the release of toxic gases following Monday’s eruption. Authorities have now confirmed there were a total of 47 people on the island at the time of the explosion: 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian.

While most of the visitors made it off the island alive, eight have since died and many more continue are in critical condition after suffering horrific burns, and will be fighting for their lives for weeks.

READ: New Zealand volcano survivors are suffering horrific burns inside their lungs

Authorities made the decision to speed up the recovery operation in part out of concern that rain mixing would mix with heavy volcanic ash lying on the ground to encase the bodies in a cement-like mixture that would make it difficult to identify the victims.

But it also comes after the families of those missing have publicly criticized the authorities’ lack of action.

“Whoever is in charge of stopping search and rescue should be ashamed of yourself,” one relative of the missing New Zealand tour guide Tipene Maangi, 23, said on social media according to the New Zealand Herald. “We don't care how good you want to look on camera, give permission for the locals, families, to grab our cousin, for those families who lost their loved ones. Three days is too long.”

READ: Rescuers can't get to New Zealand volcano victims because they're afraid of another eruption

In a letter to New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, the brother of another victim, Hayden Marshall-Inman, asked for permission to mount a personal recovery effort and highlighted the families’ anguish at the current situation.

“With the current conditions of sunshine baking and decomposing his body, he's going from a situation where we could have an open casket to now more likely not having a body at all – due to your government's red tape and slow decision making,” Mark Inman said.

Cover: In this image made from video, an injured tourist in the volcano eruption is carried to an Australian Air Force plane in Hamilton, New Zealand, Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019. New Zealand officials say they'll begin Friday to recover eight victims' bodies believed to remain on a small island since a volcanic explosion there earlier this week. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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