Soldiers wearing protective clothing and breathing equipment endured heat stress and threat of another eruption in high-risk operation
A team of six New Zealand soldiers wearing breathing apparatus and special fire-retardant suits battled heat stress as they recovered six of the victims of the Whakaari/White Island volcano eruption, the military said on Friday.
The Defence Force revealed that the painstaking operation consisted of three two-person teams deployed on the ash-strewn island at about 8am, backed up by medical staff on a police boat that also offered communications support. A helicopter hovered overhead, and HMNZS Wellington waited further offshore to receive the bodies.
At a press conference, Colonel Rian McKinstry held up images showing the teams in yellow suits traversing the devastated landscape. What the images did not show, he explained, were a physical challenge so exhausting that at one point the team had to return to the island’s jetty – “effectively a rehydration stop so that they could continue to operate at full capacity”.
Each member of the team wore three layers of clothing comprising military undergarments, a fire-retardant suit sealed at the cuffs and ankles, plus a raincoat-type material over the top.
The temperature inside the suits quickly rose to 30C before they had even begun to cross the island.
McKinstry said: “You’ll appreciate these soldiers were then in the process of having to move about the island, up and down and over the terrain, and then also they had the task of handling the victims on the island.”
They each wore a rebreather that further heated the air inside their suits with each breath they took.
Working in pairs, they moved the deceased to what the military called “a central location”, where a waiting air force helicopter transport them to HMNZS Wellington.
However, their job is unfinished. Two bodies remain, either on the island or in its surrounding waters and divers have been brought in to assist. An attempt to reach one body in the water had to be abandoned after the weather conditions deteriorated.
In a statement, the Defence Force said: “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 NZ Police efforts to recover the two deceased.’’
Commander Joint Forces New Zealand Rear Admiral Jim Gilmour praised the military operation. “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.”
Jacinda Ardern, clearly still affected by a recent meeting with the relatives of those who died, said after the operation: “There was, of course, a huge amount of courage still required to do what they did today. So my job was simply on behalf of New Zealand was to say thank you.”
Friday’s operation was just the latest stage of a days-long operation, involving air surveillance by fixed-wing aircraft, helicopter support including for patient transfers since Monday night, bomb disposal experts, disaster victim identification teams, and further back-up from HMNZS Wellington and the navy’s Seasprite helicopters.