The family of a mother and daughter who died in the Whakaari / White Island eruption have penned a heartfelt thank you to the crack military team who helped retrieve the bodies of six of the disaster's victims.
Julie Richards, 47, and her 20-year-old daughter, Jessica, were among the 21 people who died when the popular tourist destination off the Bay of Plenty coastline erupted underneath them on December 9.
Julie's body was among the six located by New Zealand Defence Force staff during a retrieval operation four days after the explosion.
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Tragically, the bodies of local tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman, 40, and 17-year-old Australian tourist Winona Langford have not been found.
In a letter sent to the New Zealand Defence Force, Julie's sister, Barbara, and brother-in-law, Matthew Whitehead, have written of their gratitude towards the brave military staff who were tasked with recovering the bodies.
"We will never know who you are, but we want you to know that we think you are all very brave people and we thank you so much," the letter states.
"We know that all of you put your own lives at risk to perform this task and this is not lost on us. When this retrieval was occurring, we hoped that all of you would be safe and it was a relief to us all when it was completed successfully, and you all came home safely.
"We know you all must have seen things that no person should see and for this we are sorry. If we could make those memories of what you saw go away we would."
Today marks the three-month anniversary of the tragedy.
The letter revealed that the family did not know who had taken Jessica from White Island.
In the hours after the devastating eruption, survivors – including several who were critically injured – were rushed to Whakatāne by helicopter and on a White Island Tours boat.
The letter said the NZDF staff and New Zealand as a nation "should feel very proud of what you have done".
"I hope every one of you can take some comfort in these words and as you go through life you should be proud of your actions on those days," the letter read.
"Words cannot express our gratitude enough for your brave actions."
The letter was published in the latest edition of Army News.
It's publication came as the NZDF also released documents planning for the body recovery mission launched on December 13.
The dangers faced by the eight-person squad who ventured onto White Island – including the risk of inhaling toxic gas or having their skin burnt by acidic sludge – was so great that the head of the Defence Force signed a special exemption that bypassed the Health and Safety at Work Act.
The correspondence released by the NZDF stated: "These operations include [using] specialist equipment within an atmosphere contaminated by toxic vapours and noxious chemicals, and complicated by a threat of future volcanic eruptions."
The documents said, "operationally there is an inability to totally eliminate the safety risks that are inherent in operating within a volatile volcanic environment."
"Specifically these limitations include the inability to: escape from the effects of corrosive chemicals; eliminate the risk of inhaling toxic gases beyond the use of personal protective equipment; pre-position medical staff in close proximity without exposing them to the same risks."
The crew tasked with the job included six SAS soldiers and two medics.
Nine days after the tragedy, it was revealed that Brisbane-based Julie and Jessica Richards were only on the volcanic island after an earlier tour there was cancelled.
Julie's sister-in-law, Jan Ebrow, said at a candlelight vigil for the pair that they had intended going to the island two years ago.
But that tour was cancelled, leading the mother and daughter to ultimately reschedule to visit on the day that tragedy struck.
Ebron told mourners that the pair had been "jumping out of their skin" to finally have the chance to step foot on White Island.
"They were laughing and carrying on about racing each other to the top and to see who could throw the biggest stone into the volcano," she said.
"The only blessing to come out of this was that they were together."