Watch CBS News

Risky effort set to retrieve bodies from New Zealand volcano island

Death toll rises after volcano erupts
Death toll rises after New Zealand volcano erupts 01:42

Whakatane, New Zealand — A team of eight New Zealand military specialists will land on a small volcanic island just after first light Friday to attempt to retrieve the bodies of eight victims of an eruption that claimed eight other lives. New Zealand police said late Thursday the recovery attempt would go ahead even though scientists believe another eruption is possible on White Island. Steam and mud are emitting from its active vents and volcanic tremors are rising, volcanologists said.

Nine Americans were among those wounded when the volcano erupted on Monday, and more than 20 people remained hospitalized with severe burns on Thursday. CBS News correspondent Ramy Inocencio said that four days after the eruption, the planned recovery operation has offered family members a glimmer of hope. While White Island remained highly volatile, officials were hopeful that it would quiet down enough to recover the bodies of those who didn't make it out.

The continuing volcanic activity has delayed the recovery of the last victims since Monday's deadly eruption, which occurred as 47 tourists from Australia, New Zealand the U.S. and Europe were exploring the island. In addition to the bodies left on the island, eight other people were killed and dozens were severely burned by the blast of scalding steam and ash.  

Police, military, volcano experts and others were to monitor the Friday morning recovery attempt from the HMNZS Wellington, which will be stationed nearby, authorities said. Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement told reporters that while the recovery operation was "not without risk. They will go onto the island and they will make every effort to recover all of the bodies." 

A military plane and helicopter are seen at the airport in Whakatane
A military plane and helicopter are seen at the airport in Whakatane, New Zealand, December 12, 2019. Jorge Silva / REUTERS

Police have cited the need to preserve evidence that would help identify the victims as a reason to take a methodical approach, but the decision to commit to a faster recovery attempt appeared to have been partly motivated by weather forecasts.

Rain mixing with the heavy volcanic ash lying on the island could encase the bodies in a cement-like substance, making recovery more difficult.

"My concerns remain the weather, the direction of the wind, the sea state because they all bring risk and add complexity," Clement said.

New Zealand medical staff were working around the clock to treat the injured survivors in hospital burn units.

The enormity of the task was clear when Dr. Peter Watson, a chief medical officer, said at a news conference that extra skin has been ordered from American skin banks. Hospital personnel anticipated needing an extra 1,300 square feet of skin for grafting onto the patients, Watson said.

Australian tissue banks have sent 2.4 square yards to New Zealand to help the survivors. "Skin is predominantly used in patients who have the most life-threatening burns, usually if they have more than 50 percent burn over their body," said Stefan Paniatowski, head of Donor Tissue Bank Victoria.

Days after New Zealand volcano erupts, island remains a death trap 01:50

A patient with that amount of burned skin doesn't have enough of their own healthy skin to transplant onto the wounded area, he explained. Additionally, in patients with an infection, creating a new wound to transfer their own skin is too risky, Paniatowski said.

Authorities say 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian were visiting the island at the time of the eruption. Many were from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that had left Sydney two days earlier.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 10 Australians were presumed among the dead. Twelve of the injured Australians were being medically evacuated to Australian hospitals for further treatment with one Australian patient staying in a New Zealand hospital, he said at a news conference Thursday.

Volcanologist Nico Fournier warned earlier that White Island remained "highly volatile." The GeoNet seismic monitoring agency has maintained the island's volcanic alert level at 2, noting there's been no eruption since Monday. On the scale, 2 signifies unrest while 5 signifies a major eruption.

White Island is the tip of a mostly undersea volcano that's about 30 miles off New Zealand's North Island and has been visited by thousands of tourists each year.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.