Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Rescue mission on its way to recover scientist's body

A rescue mission is on its way by sea to remote Raoul Island today to try and recover the body of conservationist Mark Kearney as his father recalled the last conversation he had with his son. The RV Braveheart, carrying about about a dozen police, Department of Conservation staff and scientists, left Tauranga last night.

It will take three days to reach the island, 1000km northeast of Auckland. A DOC spokesman said that the team would only land on the island if they decided it was safe, based on visual checks and updates on seismic activity. The party was expected to remain there for three or four days. Mr Kearney, aged 33, from Wellington, disappeared after a volcanic eruption on the island on Friday morning.

He left the staff quarters he shared with five other DOC workers for the hour-long walk to the volcano to check the water temperature in the crater lake. He had just reached the volcano when it erupted. "He was at the exact epicentre of the massive destruction, including where five metres of ash fell," Conservation Minister Chris Carter said yesterday. An initial ground search of the island by the other DOC staff and a thorough search by the Russian rescue helicopter sent from Tauranga failed to find any sign of Mr Kearney.

The remaining DOC staff -- team leader Jim Livingstone, and rangers Morgan Cox, Melanie Nelson, Evan Ward and Lynda McGrory-Ward -- were then evacuated from the island and flown to Auckland's Ardmore Airport. DOC spokeswoman Liz Maire said police had decided it would be a recovery mission rather than search and rescue, as the level of devastation indicated there was little chance of Mr Kearney surviving.

Michael Rosenberg is one of two GNS Science geologists who will assess the risk of further eruptions and whether it is safe for the group to land. The pair would maintain satellite phone contact with colleagues in New Zealand who were monitoring a seismometer on the island, he told the Sunday Star Times. They would not know if the eruption was a one-off until they had analysed eruption deposits. Mr Rosenberg said Friday's eruption "came out of the middle of nowhere". GNS Science had seen no sign of changes in recent months until last Sunday, when a swarm of small to moderate earthquakes began.

Meanwhile Ray Kearney recalled his last words to his son before he left for Raoul Island were "don't be a hero". Mr Kearney said his son had not been confirmed dead, but he knew there was little chance he had survived. His son dabbled in different careers -- architecture, forest and park management -- but always wanted to work outside, he told a national Sunday newspaper. As a 15-year-old, his son had convinced him to let him go solo on a tramp around the Tararua ranges, through Masterton and back down to Otaki.

The youngster took a mountain radio and called home every night. "I took a chance letting him go," he said. "But he had an incredible sense of direction... he always knew which way to go." At 16, he went with mountaineers Rob Hall and Gary Ball to Base Camp on Mt Everest, where he helped clear rubbish. He planned to save all his wages while on Raoul, and had talked about travelling to Europe. Friends yesterday paid tribute to a man remembered for his love of the outdoors and conservation.

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