Last December, a tourist visit to an island with an active volcano in New Zealand went catastrophically wrong. On December 9, while 47 tourists were admiring the natural beauties of the Whakaari/White Island, the volcano in the center of the island erupted.

In total, 20 people died and 25 wounded, most of who critically with severe burns. Because of the hectic nature of the evacuation, a number of people were left behind. It then fell to the New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) to conduct the recovery operation for the bodies of those who were left on the island.

The elite New Zealand Special Air Service (NZSAS) was picked to lead the effort. More specifically, it was operators from the unit’s E Squadron. The NZSAS is comprised of five squadrons (A, B, D, E, and Support). A and B Squadrons are Sabre, or assault, squadrons. They focus on Direct Action (DA) and Special Reconnaissance (SR) operations – but can also perform Hostage Rescue (HR) and Counterterrorism (CT) operations. D Squadron, formerly the Commando Squadron, is the dedicated CT unit of the NZSAS. E Squadron is the EOD component of the unit. And, finally, Support Squadron provides logistical support to the others.

Photographs from the recovery operation (New Zealand Police).

It was only after four days since the eruption that it was deemed reasonably safe for the recovery team to deploy on the island. The NZSAS operators and other military personnel who ventured into the island did so with the full knowledge that their operation was extremely dangerous. Indeed, the New Zealand Defense Force had to get authority for the recovery operation from the highest echelons of political power. The main danger for the recovery team came from the toxic gases that fogged the area as well as from acidic sludge that was all over the island following the eruption.

NZSAS operators have a history of augmenting local law enforcement or other emergency domestic services and agencies during man-made or natural disasters. Last year, for example, during the deadly mosque shootings in New Zealand, NZSAS operators were involved in the hunt for the culprit.