Recovery of volcano victims begins despite eruption risk
A dangerous mission to recover the bodies from New Zealand's White Island began last night with rescuers landing on the island amid warnings that the chances of a new eruption remain perilously high.
New Zealand police confirmed the risky operation had started shortly before 7.30am today NZT (6.30pm UK time), following a blessing at sea with family and friends of the victims of the eruption.
The recovery mission comes four days after Monday's eruption killed eight and left another 31 in hospital, while eight more remain missing, presumed dead.
Family and friends of the victims gathered on the foreshore of Whakatane before daybreak, sharing karakia (prayer) and hoping that today would finally be the day they would get their loved ones' bodies back.
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More people gathered along the coastline to observe the proceedings, looking out to the island, also known as Whakaari, just 50km away.
Only six of the eight bodies thought to be on the island had been spotted through drone footage and other surveillance, Mike Clement, the deputy police commissioner, told a press conference.
"Our first priority will be to get those six people off, and we will have very limited opportunity to look for the two others that we suspect are out there somewhere," he said.
Despite plans to get the bodies off the island as quickly as possible, the task is still expected to take several hours, the "balance of the morning", Mr Clement said.
A team of eight New Zealand Defence Force members involved with the mission have prepared for the worst: toxic gases from the volcano, landslides, rockfalls and - worst case scenario - the potential for another eruption, Mr Clement said.
"We have a plan, the resources and the capability to recover the bodies," he added.
The risk of another eruption has only increased as the days have gone by.
Earlier in the week, the risk of an imminent second eruption had sat between 40 and 60pc, but this had increased to 50-60pc by yesterday.
Despite the risk, police have committed to the recovery, with plans to get off the island as quickly as possible in place should the situation change.
A team from GNS Science is monitoring the situation, providing up-to-date information from the HMNZS Wellington ship nearby.
Graham Leonard, a volcanic geologist with GNS Science, described the island as "highly volatile". Fifteen survivors remain in burns units of hospitals across New Zealand, two of them British women.
Medical staff were working around the clock to treat the injured.
The enormity of the task was clear when Dr Peter Watson, a chief medical officer, said at a news conference that extra skin had been ordered from American skin banks.
Hospital personnel anticipated needing an extra 120 square metres of skin for grafting on to the patients, Dr Watson said.
Australian tissue banks have sent two square metres to help the survivors of the tragedy.
"Skin is predominantly used in patients who have the most life-threatening burns, usually if they have more than 50pc burns over their body," said Stefan Poniatowski, head of Donor Tissue Bank Victoria.
Seven Australians have been repatriated back to hospitals in Australia, while another six are set to be moved to return to their homeland by the end of today.
Three people caught up in Monday's eruption were released from hospital later that day, but those who remain in hospital are in a critical condition, medical specialists say.