New Zealand volcano eruption: Specialist teams hope to resume land search on Sunday

Veterinary nursing student Krystal Browitt, who died during the eruption, was the first person named by the police. PHOTO: KRYSTAL EVE BROWITT/ FACEBOOK
A handout photo shows special operations forces during the mission to recover bodies after a volcanic eruption on White Island, New Zealand on Dec 13, 2019. PHOTO: NYTIMES/NEW ZEALAND DEFENCE FORCE

WHAKATANE, NEW ZEALAND (AP) - Specialist teams were due to return to New Zealand's volcanic White Island on Sunday (Dec 15) to resume a land search for the bodies of two victims of an eruption which has now claimed 15 lives.

Two four-person teams wearing protective clothing and using breathing apparatuses were to land on the island by helicopter in the early morning in the hope of finding the bodies which have not been located since the island erupted last Monday.

"They will be wearing the same protective clothing as the eight New Zealand Defence Force personnel who were on the island on Friday," Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said. "However, their breathing apparatus will be different, meaning they will only be able to stay on the island for up to 75 minutes.

"We remain committed to finishing the task at hand and returning the two remaining bodies to their loved ones," he added.

While scientists said the possibility of a second eruption appeared to have receded, White Island remains "highly volatile". Police said the toll from the eruption has risen to 15, with the death in hospital on Saturday night of a severely burned victim.

For the first time, police have released the name of one of the dead.

She was Ms Krystal Browitt, a veterinary nursing student from Melbourne, Australia who turned 21 on Nov 29.

Police divers working in near zero visibility in contaminated waters around White Island tried on Saturday to find the remaining two victims that left dozens severely burned.

Ash and other fallout from the eruption have made the sea near the island toxic and divers have to be washed clean after every completed dive. Mr Tims called search conditions "unique and challenging".

"Divers have reported seeing a number of dead fish and eels washed ashore and floating in the water. Conditions in the water today are not optimal, with between zero and 2m visibility depending on location," he said.

Military specialists recovered six bodies from the island last Friday in a carefully planned but risky operation. Two more bodies of victims known to have been on the island could not be located during the four-hour operation, carried out by bomb disposal experts - six men and two women - wearing yellow hazmat suits and breathing apparatuses.

Police believe one of the missing bodies was sighted in the water close to the island by rescue teams last Tuesday, the day after the eruption. The location of the other body is not known.

Divers began the search for the bodies last Friday but were forced to stop near evening when weather conditions deteriorated. An aerial search of the island was suspended at nightfall.

The six bodies were transported to Auckland for identification.

In a statement, police said their own experts, forensic pathologists, scientists, odontologists and coroner's officials were involved in the work of identification. Under New Zealand law, the coroner must confirm the victims' identities.

Police said the process may take some time, though they are working as quickly as possible to return the bodies to their families.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called on New Zealanders to observe a minute's silence in memory of victims of the disaster at 2.11pm on Monday, exactly a week from the eruption. Ms Ardern and her Cabinet will pause in silence during their regular meeting at Parliament in Wellington.

"Wherever you are in New Zealand or around the world, this is a moment we can stand alongside those who have lost loved ones in this extraordinary tragedy," she said. "Together we can express our sorrow for those who have died and been hurt and our support for their grieving families and friends."

The bodies recovered last Friday are thought to be of Australians, who were most of the visitors to the island when the volcano erupted. The two last victims are believed to be New Zealanders - a tour guide and a boat captain who had taken tourists to the island.

Scientists have warned that White Island, which is the exposed tip of a mostly undersea volcano, is highly volatile, and has been venting steam and mud regularly.

The eruption last Monday occurred as 47 tourists and their guides were exploring the island.

Of the 15 injured, 11 are in "very critical" condition. All 13 Australians who suffered burns have been returned to Australia, he said.

Husband and wife Pratap and Mayuri Singh were confirmed last Saturday to be among survivors. The Atlanta couple are recovering from burns in Auckland's Middlemore Hospital where their conditions were listed as stable.

Specialist medical teams were heading to New Zealand from Australia, Britain and the United States. Skin banks were also sending tissue to New Zealand hospitals to use for grafts.

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

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.