New Zealand Police have revealed details of a recovery plan for the eight bodies on White Island after Monday’s volcanic eruption, following reports up to seven of them have been seen from above.
“Shortly after first light tomorrow, NZDF (New Zealand Defence Force) assets, people … will deploy to the island,” police deputy commissioner Mike Clement said on Thursday night.
He said a team of about eight will be assisted by “specialist capabilities” from other agencies.
“They will go on to the island and they will make every effort to recover all of the bodies from the island and return them to (the naval vessel HMNZS) Wellington,” he said.
“From there, we will move those bodies back to the mainland.”
Police believe eight of the nine people they listed yesterday as missing are on the island.
On the list were Adelaide man Gavin Dallow and his stepdaughter Zoe Hosking, Brisbane mother and daughter Julie and Jessica Richards, Coffs Harbour couple Karla Mathews and Richard Elzer, Melbourne woman Krystal Browitt and two tour guides from New Zealand, Tipene Maangi and Hayden Marshall-Inman.
As at 6.30pm on Thursday, 12 Australians had been confirmed as dead or presumed dead by family members with another three still missing.
Police have only confirmed eight deaths.
GNS Science has advised there is a 50 to 60 per cent chance of a further volcanic eruption on White Island in the next 24 hours, up from 40 to 60 per cent on Wednesday.
“Today is no safer than yesterday and the day before,” senior scientist Graham Leonard said.
Mr Clement stressed “there is not a zero risk with regard to this plan” and factors including the mountain itself, the weather and environment are beyond their control.
If there is another eruption, tecovery specialists will be wearing protective equipment that the victims didn’t have on Monday. The mission is expected to take a number of hours.
“A lot has to go right for this to work,” Mr Clement said.
“You will be at distance, just like I am, so we will be waiting tomorrow morning to make sure that the people who are putting themselves in harm’s way, in the interests of recovering those bodies, our thoughts and our prayers and our love will be with them.
“We will play things by ear, literally. We will make calls as the morning goes by.”
He said “opportunities to bail out” had to be built into the plan “if things don’t go our way” but didn’t want to go into any great detail at the risk of compromising the safety of rescuers.
“We’ve got lots of choices that we are going to retain,” Mr Clement said.
“I have talked about helicopters, I’ve talked about ships, very specialist staff and they are going on to the island to physically recover people from the island.
“So we’ve got as many options open to us as we can plan, given the circumstances, and given what we see play out in front of us.”
He thanked the families of the victims for being “incredibly patient” and supportive.
“I think they also understand that no loss of life, no careless loss of life, is going to make the situation better.” he said.
Mr Clement said police know where six of the eight bodies are due to eyewitness accounts and drone footage.
“We know exactly where they are, those six people. Our first priority will be to get those six people off and we will have very limited opportunity to look about for the two others that we suspect are out there somewhere,” he said.
“It is not to say they aren’t there but we can’t find more than six.
“That’s as good as I can get it at the moment but we’ll see what happens tomorrow.”
A seventh body has been seen in the water and the eighth is unaccounted for, according to the New Zealand Herald.
This was information shared at a meeting attended by police and the disaster victim identification (DVI) team at the Whakatane Sport Fishing Club this morning, hosted by Harbourmaster Isaac Tait.
Mr Tait is arguably one of the most knowledgeable people about the island, also known as Whakaari. His parents Peter and Jenny Tait started White Island Tours and he skippered tour boats for several years.
The meeting was held for local charter boat and commercial operators.
Those at the meeting were told those taking part in the recovery mission would face many obstacles, and would not be able to simply “go and get the bodies” as they commence recovery tomorrow.
Diveworks Charters operator Phil van Dusschoten was at the Thursday morning meeting and described it as extremely informative.
“We had senior members of the police, members of the police disaster victim identification team and also some of the crew from Deodar, the police launch,” Mr van Dusschoten said.
“They shared with us the need for specialist equipment to remove bodies and said it was on its way.”
He said the DVI spokesman explained why police were not able to just “go and get the bodies”.
“We were told as well as the alert level 2, the ash and the contamination from the eruption is extremely toxic and releasing noxious gases. Standard breathing equipment has been trialled on the island and blocks up quickly and the noxious gases are able to penetrate the apparatus.”
Mr van Dusschoten said at best, there was only 20 to 30 minutes of air supply and the DVI teams needed longer than that for retrieval.
“The most important thing for them (DVI) is the correct identification of bodies. They explained the best way to do this was to gather as much physical evidence from on, in and around the bodies and, to do this, they needed more than 20 to 30 minutes.
“They made it clear it’s not just a matter of grabbing bodies but said each body needed to be handled with care.”
He said specialists talked about being very aware of emergencies such as 9/11 when, two years after the tragedy, first responders and emergency workers were becoming very ill.
“They told us staff would be fully encapsulated in the equipment and would be able to do their jobs.”
Also in attendance was a skipper of one of the White Island Tours boats out on the water that day.
David Plews, who had been on the water for many years and was credited for saving lives when one of the White Island Tours vessels caught fire in 2016, realised something was wrong and radioed an immediate evacuation of the island.
Within three seconds of making the call, the volcano erupted.
Mr van Dusschoten said he asked police representatives if the bodies would be bought back to Whakatane before being transported to Auckland, saying this was something the town needed for some sort of closure.
“We were told they would do their best to see this happen.”