Rescuers fear two bodies could be under ash tomb
Six bodies have been retrieved from the lunar-like crater of White Island in the wake of the New Zealand volcano tragedy.
Local police confirmed the news this morning, with the victims - mostly Australians -transported to the nearby HMNZS Wellington naval ship by helicopter.
Eight bodies were buried under a metre of ash, but the recovery of the final two is yet to be announced.
Local police said the recovery efforts took longer than expected because of the protective equipment being worn by the specialist retrieval team.
The retrieval effort came amid warnings the volcano was at a heightened risk of eruption.
Police had foreshadowed their inability to locate all eight bodies believed to be on the island, with surveillance only identifying six bodies among the debris and ash.
They said they would only look for the remaining two if they had time and believed it safe to do so.
NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told ABC this morning: "The role is to get those who have perished on the island and have them returned ... we just want to bring everyone home."
"My hope is that it won't be too much longer. The desire is to do the job properly ... we are dealing with people's loved ones."
Ms Ardern said the team was equipped to spend several hours on the island, which remains shrouded in toxic gas.
The group of eight specialist soldiers were dropped onto the island this morning to begin the retrieval families of the loved ones have demanded since the eruption on Monday. The blast killed eight tourists, injured more than 30 others with hideous burns and saw eight others declared missing, presumed killed.
Police believe the bodies lay around 300 metres from the crater, within 200 square metres, in small clusters.
It would take around 15 minutes to walk from the shore to the region where the retrieval would take place; the retrieval is expected to take several hours safety permitting.
Rain mixing with the heavy volcanic ash lying on the island could encase the bodies in a cement-like substance, making recovery difficult as is the toxic gas and steam.
The operation began at 5.30am with a helicopter sweeping over the crater with a searchlight before a second military chopper went in.
As dawn broke, a haka was performed at the waters edge that echoed across the harbour before local Maori women broke into a spectacular version of Whaakaria Mai/ How Great Thou Art hymn.
Some on shore burst into tears at the highly-charged emotional scene. A White Islands tour boat carrying family was earlier also sent out to sea to make a blessing.
Still on the volcanic atoll are six Australians Jessica Richards, 20, from Brisbane, Krystal Browitt, 21, from Melbourne, Richard Elzer and Karla Mathews from Coffs Harbour, Julie Richards, 47, from Brisbane and Zoe Hosking, 15, from Adelaide.
Also there are two New Zealand tour guides Tipene Maangi and Hayden Inman.
Time is against the crew in their space-like protective suits as each minute passes by the likelihood of an eruption increases. Since Monday an eruption likelihood has increased daily to sit at 60 per cent.
Offshore, the operation is being coordinated from a naval frigate off its shore HMNZS Wellington, with GNS Science, New Zealand's geological monitoring agency, on the ship and on the mainland monitoring the island tremors for the earliest possible sign it's about to erupt.
A police launch can be seen just off the island's shore ready to make a rapid extraction of the retrieval crew should dangers rise further.
On the mainland shore of Whakatane overlooking the island locals gathered just before dawn, some were family members of the lost others wellwishers. Maori songs were sung in support. In this deeply cultural township where 50 per cent of the population are of Maori heritage this is an important operation to have loved ones, including two of their own tribe Marshall Inman and Tipene Maangi whose bodies are on the island, returned.
Elder Teina Boasa-Dean said: "Today is really a ritual stage in the process of grieving and sending love and thoughts of care to the families.
"It is also an opportunity to provide some healing to the local iwi (community)."
She said the dawn singing and prayers was a way of "providing strength and lots of encouragement" to the families whose loved ones remain on White Island.
She said the eight specialists who will go onto the island had been blessed by locals in a ritual ceremony in the early hours of the morning to allow them to bypass the traditional prohibition order that had been placed on the island.
An aunty of Tipene Maangi, who didn't want to be named, said a member of his whānau (family) had headed out to the White Island.
"It is what we have been waiting for," she said from the cordon at Whakatāne Harbour. "We are hoping the Whakaari (island) lets us on to bring our baby home."
In the nearby marae sacred traditional meeting house people also gathered to pray for their members.
Authorities have already warned only six of the eight bodies have so far been spotted by drone but they will search for the other two as best they can.
New Zealand police deputy commissioner Mike Clement and his multi-agency emergency management committee is in Whakatane said the operation was risky.
"We can't find anything more than six. that's not to say they aren't there," Clement said.
"We will have very limited opportunity to look about for one or two others."
With the bodies to be returned to shore and the death toll from the tragedy mounting, bodies from other fatal incidents are being sent to Waikato as health authorities try to keep the Auckland mortuary free for victims of the eruption.
A Coronial Services spokesman said the Auckland mortuary had been prepared to receive all deaths relating to White Island.
All post mortems would be carried out in Auckland, he said.
"Some deaths unrelated to the Whakaari/White Island tragedy have been transferred to other mortuaries, namely Waikato.
"This is in line with the Mass Fatality Incident contingency plan."
Police had previously cited the need to preserve evidence that would help identify the victims as a reason to take a methodical approach, but the decision to make a faster recovery attempt was motivated by demands of family, weather forecasts and the likelihood the bodies could be lost forever should there be an eruption; experts have predicted the next ruction would involve magma..
National Emergency Management Agency director Sarah Stuart-Black said the decision had the support of the committee.
"This is a police decision ... this will be their decision and I'll support them," she said.
Hero helicopter pilots who went to the island on Monday after it erupted to rescue the injured and dying Mark Law and Tim Barrow were to also be involved in the operation.
Mr Law had earlier outlined a chilling scenario if the retrieval did not go ahead and the island's acidic environment potentially forever entombs the eight victims on Whakaari if officials wait out ongoing volcanic activity.
Also involved has been the White Island Tours company that took the tourists to the island. Chairman Paul Quinn said: "Of course I am going to be involved, I am involved now."
REPATRIATION EFFORT BEGINS
At airports across New Zealand a mix of military and civilian aircraft from Australia were today flying in and out, repatriating citizens injured in the White Island volcanic eruption.
On the ground a team of medical specialists were assessing those who could be moved, visiting some of the seven hospitals treating the burns victims.
There are two dozen people in intensive care, all in critical condition.
Most of the Australians will soon have been flown back in the complex medical evacuation with 12 patients expected to be taken to Australian hospitals. One Australian would remain in a New Zealand hospital.
The movements came as authorities confirmed the death toll from Monday's eruption was now at eight but is expected to climb considerably.
There were 47 people on the island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, at the time of the eruption.
Twenty-four of those were from Australia, nine from the United States, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and Britain and one from Malaysia.
The Australian rescue has considerably relieved overstretched medical resources in New Zealand.
District Health Board today told the Ministry of Health they needed to defer surgeries across the country to reprioritise resources to treat the burns patients.
"DHBs are discussing regionally and nationally how they can share resources to minimise disruption and manage the pressure on busy staff," a ministry spokeswoman said.
Burns victims needed constant monitoring and dressing changes.
In total 12 patients were expected to have been taken across the Tasman although staff said up to the minute decisions were being made depending on patient conditions.
"This is just the start of a very long process that for some patients will last several months," Counties Manukau Chief Medical Officer, Dr Peter Watson, said at Middlemore Hospital in Auckland of the time it takes for burns to heal.
Speaking from Melbourne, Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed 10 Australians were still missing and presumed dead.
"I want to start by just extending our deepest sympathies and concern and love to all of the families and all of those who have been affected by this," Mr Morrison said.
"It's obviously added to by the uncertainty and the frustration in being able to gain access, obviously, to the volcano and the Prime Minister has confirmed to me again that it is still a very dangerous place."
The Prime Minister confirmed 24 Australians had been directly caught in the volcanic eruption as well as four permanent residents.
"There are two who have passed away in hospital and a further one permanent resident who is missing and presumed deceased," Mr Morrison said.
"In the days ahead, there will be worse news, based on what I've just relayed to you."
While the repatriation of the injured mission was underway, so too was planning for the recovery of bodies.
Military aircraft, a C-130, landed in Whakatane airfield delivering the specialist team to be involved in the extraction of bodies.
Authorities conceded they had only been able to identify six bodies under the ash, using drones, but it was hope the team put on the ground might be able to find others and a repeat mission on the unstable rock would never be required.
New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency lowered White Island's volcanic alert level to 2, noting there's been no further eruption since Monday, when the level had briefly been raised from 2 to 4.
That said, it noted an eruption was very likely and this time would involve magma.