A team of eight rescuers from the New Zealand Defence Force will risk their lives to reach the ash-covered bodies left on White Island since Monday’s deadly volcano blast, in a dangerous mission to bring the victims home to their grieving families.
Police deputy commissioner Mike Clements told a media conference on Thursday evening the risk of further eruptions had not passed and he “didn’t expect conditions to change overnight or tomorrow”.
But the specialist NZDF personnel would be deployed at first light with specialised equipment, including helicopters, in a retrieval mission expected to last several hours.
The mission will be monitored and co-ordinated from the mainland by the expert team, including geologists.
“There is not zero risk that comes with this plan,” deputy commissioner Clements told a press briefing.
“The chances of success are determined by things [the mountain, volcano and weather] outside our control.
“A lot has to go right for this to work for the people putting themselves in harm’s way”, he said, but contingencies were in place to allow “lots of opportunities to back out”.
He said six bodies had been seen on aerial recognisance missions, with two people still unaccounted for.
Search and rescue teams have been kept away from the island, with the New Zealand government ordering a five-kilometre exclusion zone amid fears of another eruption.
That decision had left victims’ families reeling – among them, a local helicopter pilot who was so desperate for action he threatened to fly to the island to find his missing brother.
In an about-face on Thursday, authorities finally agreed to launch a bold retrieval operation.
It comes despite the volcano’s unpredictability and increasingly volatile conditions, with indications there is a 50 to 60 per cent chance of another blast.
Australians are among the missing believed to have perished on the island.
Earlier, deputy commissioner Clements has warned: “At no time in the last two years, probably longer, have the risks of further eruption been greater.”
News of the retrieval comes as the NSW government said 10 residents who were injured in the volcano disaster are being flown to Sydney to receive critical care.
Three arrived at Concord Hospital overnight, and one was taken to Royal North Shore Hospital.
In a statement, NSW Health said some of the 10 residents had “life-threatening burn injuries”.
“All the victims are adults and are being assessed based on clinical priority,” NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant said.
More Australians have been flown to The Alfred hospital in Melbourne.
Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos said the state was ready to offer more assistance.
“Our focus is on ensuring the best clinical care for those injured, and support for their immediate family during this difficult time,” she said.
The evacuations are part of a federal government mass casualty response plan activated on Wednesday to bring Australians injured in Monday’s White Island eruption to burns units at hospitals in NSW and Victoria, pending the approval of doctors in NZ.
Three Royal Australian Air Force aircraft were deployed to Christchurch on Wednesday as part of the repatriation effort.
Eight Australians have been confirmed dead in the blast, with Sydney brothers Berend and Matthew Hollander named on Thursday morning.
Matthew, 13, and Berend, 16, were holidaying in New Zealand with their parents Martin and Barbara. They died in hospital and their parents remain unaccounted for.
The other Australians confirmed dead are Adelaide man Gavin Dallow, 53; Brisbane woman Julie Richards, 47, and her daughter Jessica, 20; Coffs Harbour couple Karla Matthews, 32, and Richard Elzer, 32, and friend Jason Griffiths.
But the toll is certain to rise with grave concerns held for eight more Australians.
Many of the survivors suffered critical injuries due to the intense heat and toxicity of the ash and volcanic gas spewed into the air.
Police believe eight bodies remain on Whakaari (White Island’s Maori name).
Two of those are believed to be local tour guides Marshall Inman – the first person confirmed to have died – and Tipene Maangi.
The other six are believed to be Australian.
The deaths of the two Sydney schoolboys have hit Knox Grammar hard, with headmaster Scott James calling it a devastating loss.
“Matthew had a close circle of friends and was popular amongst his peers,” Mr James said.
“Ben’s engaging smile and quirky sense of humour made him a good mate to his close group of friends and a welcome member to every classroom.”
All of the Australians who were touring White Island when it exploded had been aboard the cruise liner Ovation of the Seas.
Royal Australian Air Force planes have already brought back some of the injured Australians.
Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner said there was a “growing desperation” among families to see bodies returned.