On Friday a team of specialist soldiers were dispatched to Whakaari/White Island on a mission to retrieve the bodies of those killed when the volcano erupted days earlier.

From the outset that mission was fraught with danger; a challenging and perilous landscape, volatile and changing conditions unlike any they had experienced before.

Today their leader, senior Defence officer Colonel Rian McKinstry, spoke to Herald senior journalist Anna Leask about his team and what they encountered on Whakaari.

After days of uncertainty, anger and desperation the four words the world wanted and needed to hear about Whakaari/White Island were finally uttered.

"We have a plan!"

At 2.11pm last Monday the volcanic island off the coast of Whakatane erupted as tourists were exploring its crater and crevices.

Some were hauled off the island as she blew, thrown onto boats and into helicopters and rushed to safety.

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But others could not be saved and their remains lay in situ while authorities scrambled to work out how to get them off the furious and ash-covered island 50km from the mainland.

Conditions were volatile, high risk, fraught with extreme danger.

Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Clement pictured in Whakatāne before briefing families on the plan to recover bodies from White Island. Photo / Alan Gibson
Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Clement pictured in Whakatāne before briefing families on the plan to recover bodies from White Island. Photo / Alan Gibson

Police were clear - not one person would go onto the island until the risk of further loss of life could be mitigated to a level they were satisfied with.

It was bleak. It was unfathomably sad. Everyone wanted answers.

Then on Thursday night the four words came from Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement.

"We have a plan," he said.

"At lunchtime today experts presented me with options for a recovery.

"We spent time to get the right people with the right skills and equipment.

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"Shortly after first light, NZDF assets will deploy to the island assisted by specialists from across other agencies, including NZ Police.

"They will make every effort to get all the bodies off the island … A lot has to go right for this to work."

Less than 24 hours later that plan had not only been put into action, it was a success. Mostly.

The mission started at first light.

"One thing we train our teams to do is look at different scenarios and come up with options to work on the fly," McKinstry explained.

"They probably never envisioned being deployed to a situation as dynamic as White Island."

Seven members of the Defence Force's SAS E Squadron and their commander boarded the HMNZS Wellington and made their way to Whakaari.

They were kitted out in extreme gear - 15kg each of special closed-circuit breathing apparatus strapped to their backs and layers of specialist clothing designed to wick sweat, filter out gases, protect from fire, liquid.

Two rigid-hull inflatable Navy boats deployed in the search area. Photo / NZDF
Two rigid-hull inflatable Navy boats deployed in the search area. Photo / NZDF

Masks and hoods and boots and gloves they were covered from top to toe, their sweat building as they climbed into their gear and being encased inside as they went so they could hear it "sloshing around" their bodies.

The eight then transferred from the Navy ship to the ash-covered jetty by rigid inflatable boat.

Six of them set off, leaving the commander and one other at the jetty.

That was all part of the plan.

Senior Defence Officer Colonel Rian McKinstry talks to media at the command centre in Whakatane as the bodies of six people are recovered from Whaakari / White Island. Photo / Ben Fraser
Senior Defence Officer Colonel Rian McKinstry talks to media at the command centre in Whakatane as the bodies of six people are recovered from Whaakari / White Island. Photo / Ben Fraser

The six made their way across the crater, scaling rock faces and scrambling down crevices as they forged path to where the bodies lay.

It was hotter than they ever imagined, their gear made the slog harder than ever.

No one stopped or faltered.

But because conditions were rougher than expected the commander made the call for himself and the last soldier to move forward.

The Whakaari eight then found the fallen - one body after another, securing them, readying them, carrying them back to the jetty for removal.

All the while choppers circled with people monitoring the volcano activity, the gas, the weather.

It was a nervous time.

"I certainly had fear for them," McKinstry told the Herald.

"We had done everything we could to eliminate and mitigate the risks, but what we couldn't mitigate was the behaviour of the island itself.

"That in itself was concerning … but there was no sense that (the soldiers) had concern for themselves and that risk."

The updates came in from police - faster than most journalists expected.

The team had landed, they had found the bodies, the bodies were being prepped, the bodies were on their way back to shore.

As soon as they could the soldiers tore off their gear, their bodies drenched in hours and litres of sweat, their lungs gasping for fresh air.

Their special suits provided them with clean air as they worked but it was warm, arguably cloying and moist.

An aerial view of White Island after the volcanic eruption. Photo / George Novak
An aerial view of White Island after the volcanic eruption. Photo / George Novak

The feeling of that fresh sea air expanding their chests as they sailed back to Whakatāne must have been bliss.

"One soldier told me that he was down on his hands and knees taking in air," McKinstry said.

"He looked up and everyone else was doing exactly the same thing.

"They were exhausted, the physical toll was just severe dehydration.

"There was also a strong sense of relief … they were relieved that they had gotten the job done."

McKinstry didn't think the enormity of the recovery effort had settled among his team yet.

He expects when it does, they will be elated.

"I know every single one of them will be proud of the job they have done - helping the families and helping the community.

"Undoubtedly people will process their experience in different ways though, and that is something we will closely monitor."

The team are all highly, intensely trained men and women.

Some were at the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster, others were called on after the Christchurch quake when the CCTV building collapsed and ignited, and more recently some worked on the March 15 terror attack.

"Tragically, they all have some experience in this type of work," said McKinstry.

"But none of them had experience in wearing that kind of gear for two or three hours on an active volcano."

Yesterday, after catching up on sleep and rehydrating, the team came back together to debrief.

Recovery teams return from Whakaari / White Island. Photo / RNZ
Recovery teams return from Whakaari / White Island. Photo / RNZ

Firstly, it was important to look at operational procedures and whether anything could be learned for future missions.

"So if we were asked immediately to go again, we'd be ready for that," said McKinstry.

"But there's also an element of getting them together … to give them the opportunity to share some thoughts.

"We've given them the appropriate medicals and psychiatric support, and we'll look to make sure we give them the appropriate mechanisms to look for signs within themselves if they are having challenges."

McKinstry himself does not feel a personal toll - he points out that while he was integral to the planning and operational side of things, the hard slog was not his own - but he certainly has feelings about the recovery.

"I have strong, strong sense of pride in all of the soldiers - not just those directly on the island, across the defence force," he said.

"And the police.

"I just feel total elation and pride, it feels very good."

So are his team heroes?

It's a word used often this week around those involved in the Whakaari rescue and then recovery.

"They are a very stoic sort of individual," McKinstry says.

Recovery teams are decontaminated after their mission to Whakaari / White Island. Photo / RNZ
Recovery teams are decontaminated after their mission to Whakaari / White Island. Photo / RNZ

"If anything they are probably thinking more around it being another day on the job.

"For most of those soldiers they are on a duty roster for explosives ordinance 365 days a year so they have a mindset where they are focused on their work and the next task.

"But I truly believe what they have done is wonderful … I absolutely think they are heroes and what they have done is extremely heroic.

"We didn't know how the outcome was going to turn out, but they stepped into the unknown - they suited up and undertook their task so I am proud of that.

"They will probably think 'no no, you're barking up the wrong tree sir' but I truly believe they are heroes … I have no doubt."

McKinstry also has no doubt the same soldiers would not hesitate doing the same again, any day or time.

"I feel lucky to be able to work with these people and we are lucky as New Zealanders that we have people like them that are prepared to do it … also people from all different parts of the country from the Whakatāne community to the people in the hospitals, the police, sailors, airmen.

"There are so many people working so hard to help - it makes me very proud to be a Kiwi."