After recovering six bodies, an elite National Defense force was still searching Friday for two more victims of a volcano eruption on a New Zealand tourist island that killed 16 people and left 26 with severe burns.
The risky recovery operation, which began at daybreak, required the team of six men and two women to wear special clothing and breathing gear as protection from toxic and deadly gases, according to Police Commissioner Mike Bush.
Scientists had warned the recovery teams that a single inhalation could prove fatal from gases still lingering on White Island. They also cautioned that the volcano, located off New Zealand’s east coast, remained highly volatile and could erupt at any moment.
“The environment the recovery team faced today was highly unpredictable and challenging,” Bush said. “They showed absolute courage and commitment to ensure we can offer some closure to the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones.”
Volcanic eruption:New Zealand orders 186,000 square inches of skin grafts from US
The six bodies, which had been located earlier by drones, were returned by helicopter to the HMNZS Wellington, awaiting offshore. Among the two bodies still missing, divers were attempting to locate one that apparently had been swept into a bay by currents.
Sixteen people were killed and dozens severely burned by the blast of scalding steam and ash on Monday as 47 tourists and their guides were exploring the island.
Family and friends of the victims, who waited on the Navy’s recovery ship for the team’s helicopters to return, burst into applause when told that six bodies had been recovered, according to the Herald.
The operation, involving two helicopters from the New Zealand Defense Force, was mounted from Whakatane township, about 30 miles away.
Authorities said 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian were visiting White Island, also known as Whakaari, when the volcano erupted. Many were from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that had left Sydney two days earlier.
Even in normal times, visitors wear hard hats and gas masks when viewing the volcano, which is largely submerged.
Among those who escaped, 26 remained in the hospital with burns over almost a third of their bodies to view the volcano.
‘Absolutely heartbroken’:Teen brothers from Chicago area among New Zealand volcano victimsSpecialist medical teams from Australia, Britain and the United States were en route to New Zealand hospitals.
Dr. Peter Watson, chief medical officer at Counties Makanau Health of New Zealand, told reporters that extra skin has been ordered from American skin banks. He said hospital personnel anticipated needing an extra 1,300 square feet of skin for grafting onto patients.
New Zealand’s GeoNet seismic monitoring agency has cautioned about the danger of another eruption, noting that volcanic tremors are rising and steam and mud were being vented regularly.
Contributing: Associated Press