Six deceased recovered in Operation on Whakaari/White Island

Press Release – New Zealand Defence Force

The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) recovered today the bodies of six people who tragically died in Monday’s eruption on Whakaari/White Island and will support efforts to recover the bodies of two others in the hope there is resolution for those families.

Commander Joint Forces New Zealand Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour said the thoughts of all those involved in the recovery operation today were with the victims and their loved ones.

Rear Admiral Gilmour said the recovery operation had been well planned but was not without risk and he acknowledged all those who had put themselves in danger to achieve this outcome for the families of the six deceased and the community.

“We acknowledge the leadership of the New Zealand Police and other agencies involved in the recovery operations to date, as well as the heroic efforts of medical staff across New Zealand treating survivors,’’ he said.

The conditions and terrain on Whakaari/White Island were difficult and planning for today’s recovery operation had included minimising risks to personnel on the ground, including exit strategies in the event of another eruption.

“We had go/no-go criteria before carrying out the recovery operation,” Rear Admiral Gilmour said.

“We cannot downplay the risk involved in this operation and I acknowledge the efforts of all those who placed themselves potentially in danger to achieve a result for the families and community.

“Our personnel feel a keen sense of duty and join to serve New Zealand. It is this sense of duty that sees them willing to undertake operations like this, understanding the risks involved.’’

The recovery team included six NZDF Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) specialists and a ground commander, with medical staff on small boats nearby.

The ground team worked in pairs to move the deceased people to a central location, where a Royal New Zealand Air Force NH90 helicopter transported the bodies to HMNZS Wellington, which was stationed a short distance from the island.

“We are acutely aware that while there has been some resolution for the families of the six identified deceased on the island, the families of two others are still waiting to have their loved ones returned to them, and we will continue to support New Zealand Police efforts to recover the two deceased,’’ Rear Admiral Gilmour said.

A broad range of capabilities and personnel had been involved in the rescue and recovery operation since the eruption on Monday, he said.

This had ranged from personnel who specialise in imagery analysis, to those operating military assets as well as those who went on to the island today.

Over the past week, this support has included:
• Air surveillance by the P3K2 Orion and NH90 Helicopter support, including for patient transfers on Monday night, and air transport including by A109 helicopter.
• HMNZS Wellington and the Royal New Zealand Navy’s SH2G Seasprite helicopters, which had carried out surveillance and support.
• Personnel from the New Zealand Army’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal squadron with their specialist hazardous material equipment and training.
• Mortuary affairs and disaster victim identification teams assisting civil authorities in Whakatane and Auckland.
• Personnel from the Deployable Joint Interagency Task Force who have performed command and control functions in support of the recovery efforts.

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