New Zealand police are in a race against time to recover the bodies of eight people buried under ash on White Island before it hardens and entombs them like the victims of Pompeii, experts have warned.
Mark Law, a hero helicopter pilot who was among the first on the scene after the eruption hit on Monday, said that if ash covering the bodies mixes with rain it could set like concrete, making recovery much more difficult.
He was supported by geology professor Phil Shane, of Auckland University, who said that is a ‘common phenomena’ after eruptions.
Police have announced that a rescue operation to recover the bodies will begin on Friday, despite the risk of another eruption.
Specialist teams will be dropped on to the island at first light to recover six bodies whose locations are known, and search for two other bodies among the ash.
Meanwhile the death toll from the disaster was raised to 16 as two Australian schoolboys – Matthew and Berend Hollander, 13 and 16, died in hospital.
The pair, who were born in Chicago but lived in Sydney, were touring the volcano with parents Martin and Barbara when the eruption hit. Their parents are listed among the missing.
Their deaths mean 28 people are now being treated in hospital – 21 in New Zealand and seven in Australia – some with burns on up to 80 per cent of their bodies. Three have been treated and discharged.
Speaking to Stuff.co.nz about the risks of leaving the bodies on the island, Mr Law said more ash could fall on them, burying them even deeper than they are currently.
If rain which has been falling near the island in recent days mixes with the ash, then it could harden and further complicate matters, he added.
Even if the ash does not harden, he warned, acidity on the island could mean that there is little to recover by the time police get out there.
‘If it continues to murmur away for the next two or three weeks or two or three months and they are not prepared to commit… there might be a real chance that we don’t get out there and get them,’ he said.
Mr Law has previously offered to fly out himself and get the bodies, saying he knows the location of all eight and believes he could have them loaded into the helicopter within 90 minutes of landing.
Announcing the police rescue operation, Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said the priority will be the bodies of six people whose locations he had identified.
The bodies are resting some 1,650ft (500m) from the rim of the crater.
Police will also try to find and recover the bodies of two other people who are known to have been on the island.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Mr Clement admitted that ‘a lot has to go right’ for the operation to be a success.
Specialist teams including members of the New Zealand military have been drafted in for the risky operation, Mr Clement said, though refused to go into details.
Asked whether the New Zealand SAS would be involved, Mr Clement would only say ‘we have the right people with the right skills and the right equipment.’
A geologist will be on hand sifting data in realtime to determine whether another eruption is imminent and whether the mission needs to be aborted.
He added: ‘We will make every effort to recover all of the bodies however our plan is subject to things beyond our control such as the island and the weather.
‘A lot has to go right for us tomorrow to make this work.
‘There is no zero risk option in regard to the plan but we have carefully considered it.
‘We don’t expect the risk to change tonight or tomorrow but we have planned for it. We will provide updates on tomorrow’s recovery operation as they come to hand.
‘The risk is not gone. Of course I’m going to worry tonight.’
Elsewhere Mark Inman, the brother of Hayden Marshall-Inman whose body is still on the island, blasted ‘red tape’ that he believes has delayed the rescue operation.
Mr Inman, a helicopter pilot, has suggested that he is willing to go back to the island himself to recover his brother’s body, but has been told to stay away.
A visibly anguished Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earlier expressed empathy with the families but insisted ‘everyone is desperate to get those victims back’.
‘We are all in exactly the same place and wanting to make sure that as soon as possible, as soon as we can, that recovery operation begins.’
After days of caution and focusing on the risk to rescuers, police have indicated they now see the recovery as a race against time, and the longer the operation is delayed, the less chance there is of returning identifiable remains to grieving families.
On White Island poisonous gases are still billowing from the volcanic vent and the island is blanketed in a thick layer of acidic ash.
GeoNet vulcanologist Nico Fournier said the dangers facing recovery teams if an eruption occurred included magma, superheated steam, ash and cannonball-like rocks thrown from the caldera at supersonic speed.
While officials weighed how to recover bodies of the dead, medics cautioned that many of those in hospital are in critical condition and ‘require a lot of intensive care.’
The survivors’ injuries were so severe New Zealand doctors initially estimated they would need to import 1.2 million square centimetres (185,000 square inches) of skin for grafts – although some victims are being moved overseas to ease the strain.
A total of 47 day-trippers and guides were on the island when the blast occurred, hailing from Australia, the United States, Britain, China, Germany, Malaysia and New Zealand.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one Australian was confirmed dead and a further 10 were missing and presumed to have perished.
Canberra has sent three military aircraft with specialist medical crews to repatriate some of the survivors, with at least 12 Australians expected to be flown to burns units in the country.
One Malaysian has been confirmed while British and US officials said their citizens were among those hurt.
A coronial process has begun to identify the eight confirmed dead but police said it could ‘take some time’.