Recovery of bodies left on White Island begins following volcano eruption

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Ivor Bennett

Authorities in New Zealand have begun recovering the bodies of eight victims left behind on volcanic White Island following the deadly eruption.

Continuing volcanic activity since Monday’s eruption has prevented rescue services returning to the island.

A further eruption remains a possibility, New Zealand’s seismic monitoring agency has said, but authorities felt they should make an attempt to recover the bodies.

A traditional blessing was held at sea with family members of the victims after police confirmed that conditions were stable enough to allow the retrieval operation to proceed, early on Friday morning.

Deputy Commissioner John Tims, national operations commander, said the families returned to the mainland as the operation commenced.

A Navy helicopter takes off from Whakatane Airport to aid in recovery. Credit: AP

Two helicopters from the New Zealand Defence Force took off from nearby coastal town Whakatane shortly after first light.

Eight military specialists wearing protective clothing and using breathing apparatus will land to recover the bodies, as scientists warned of toxic and corrosive gases on the island following the eruption.

Police, military and other authorities will monitor the recovery operation from a ship stationed just off the island.

Volcanologists on board the ship will use electronic equipment on the island to provide the recovery team with real-time information on the volcano's behaviour.

Plumes of smoke off White Island. Credit: AP

A total of 47 people were on White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano, when the eruption occurred, including two British women who were among those admitted to hospital.

The confirmed death toll rose to eight on Wednesday night with the deaths of two more people who were being treated in hospital for severe burns.

That number of fatalities does not include those left on the island who are presumed to have died.

Authorities said those on the island at the time of the eruption included 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Chinese and a Malaysian.

Dozens of people were severely burnt in the eruption, with volcanologists speculating many may have been hit by fierce jets of scalding steam bursting from the volcano.

Two of the people confirmed among the dead are Sydney brothers Berend and Matthew Hollander, aged 16 and 13.

Their parents Martin and Barbara were among those listed as missing on Thursday.

Locals on the beach a Whakatane beach as they await the recovery of victims. Credit: AP

Those now confirmed to have died, or who are missing presumed dead, include a mother and her 20-year-old daughter from Brisbane, and an Adelaide man and his step-daughter, whose mother was being treated in hospital.

A total of 19 victims were still being treated on Thursday local time in intensive care and burns units at several hospitals across New Zealand.

A further seven have been flown to Australian hospitals.

With many of the victims suffering severe burns, medical officials said extra skin had to be ordered from skin banks in America.

Monitoring agency GeoNet said on Thursday local time that the White Island’s volcanic alert had been lowered to level two after it was briefly raised to four on Monday, on a scale where five signifies a major eruption.

A further eruption remains a possibility, the agency said, noting volcanic tremors were rising, with steam and mud being vented regularly.

White Island is the tip of a mostly under-sea volcano 30 miles off New Zealand’s North Island and has been a popular attraction visited by thousands of tourists each year.

Speaking on Thursday as rescue teams waited to be given the go-ahead, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said: “Everyone is desperate to get those victims back and so I know that will be a matter that the police are utterly focused on.”