White Island Volcano Erupts in New Zealand

Smoke and ash rise from the White Island volcano on Dec. 9 in Whakatane, New Zealand. (Photo: John Boren/Getty Images)

New Zealand's White Island volcano erupted Dec. 9, sending a plume of ash about 12,000 feet (3,657 meters) into the sky. There were 47 people on the island at the time, according to the national police, and 17 died in the eruption or shortly after. More than 30 people were rescued from the island, many with severe burns.

Eight of the people who died didn't make it off the island, and the risk of another eruption prevented any recovery attempts for days. Finally, on Dec. 13, a specialist team from the New Zealand Defence Force and National Police conducted a "high-speed" retrieval mission, despite a significant threat of another eruption, and retrieved six of the eight bodies. The chance of an eruption that day was 50% to 60%, according to GeoNet, a geological hazard monitoring system based in New Zealand.

The team wore protective clothing and breathing gear, the BBC reports, and a geologist analyzed real-time data during the operation to determine if it needed to be aborted. Authorities already knew the locations of six bodies before going in, so the recovery team flew in directly by helicopter, wrapping up the dangerous mission in about four hours. They secured the bodies and carried them to a naval boat at the shore, which then returned them to the mainland.

"The environment the recovery team faced today was highly unpredictable and challenging," New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said in a statement. "They showed absolute courage and commitment to ensure we can offer some closure to the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones."

The recovery effort isn't over, however, since two bodies have yet to be found. They likely washed out to sea, according to police, after a "significant weather event" on the island the night of the eruption. The chance of finding them is fading, but local authorities will continue to lead search efforts as the national operation scales back.

White Island, also known as Whakaari, is the most active cone volcano in New Zealand. It's located about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the east coast of the country's North Island, and serves as a popular tourist attraction. The people visiting the island at the time of the eruption included 24 from Australia, two from China, four from Germany, one from Malaysia, five from New Zealand, two from the U.K. and nine from the U.S., according to police. Most of the visitors were reportedly passengers of a cruise ship that had docked nearby.

People were seen walking inside the crater moments before it erupted at about 2:11 p.m. local time, the BBC reports. Other visitors had just left the island — including American tourist Michael Schade, who posted videos and descriptions of the aftermath on Twitter. He and his family had just left the island about 20 minutes earlier, he said, but the boat they were on returned to help with rescues.

"We had just got on the boat ... then someone pointed it out and we saw it," Schade tells the BBC. "I was basically just shocked. The boat turned back and we grabbed some people that were waiting on the pier."

There had been signs of heightened activity at the volcano, including reports of elevated background activity dating back weeks, according to GeoNet. The site reported moderate volcanic unrest in a post on Dec. 3, citing "explosive gas and steam-driven mud jetting" but noting there was no volcanic ash being produced.

"Overall, the monitored parameters continue to be in the expected range for moderate volcanic unrest and associated hazards exist," the site reported Dec. 3, adding that "the current level of activity does not pose a direct hazard to visitors."

The alert level had been raised before the eruption, University of Auckland volcanologist Jan Lindsay tells the BBC, but the amount of activity seen before the eruption isn't necessarily a red flag for such an active volcano. The last eruption at White Island, in 2016, caused no injuries.

"[The volcano] has a persistently active hydrothermal system," Lindsay says, and "if gases build up under a block of clay or mud they can be released quite suddenly."