Six New Zealand volcano eruption victims recovered from White Island, two bodies still unaccounted for
Photo: Women embrace at blessing in Whakatane in New Zealand. (ABC News: Brendan Esposito)
Elite New Zealand military teams have braved corrosive gases and the risk of another eruption to recover six bodies from volcanic White Island in a daring helicopter-borne mission.
Aircraft and divers are still searching for another two bodies, with police saying they now believe at least one of them is in the sea around the island.
All of the bodies recovered so far are expected to be those of Australian tourists who were visiting the island at the time of Monday's eruption, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said.
"We will continue to search for these people," New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush said.
The high-risk operation using New Zealand military and police specialists wearing breathing gear and protective clothing began just after first light at the township of Whakatane.
Toxic gases lingering on the island in the wake of Monday's eruption are so corrosive that a single inhalation could be fatal.
By 10:30am (local time), authorities had flown to the volcanic island, 50 kilometres off New Zealand's east coast.
The six bodies were loaded on to helicopters and flown to HMNZS Wellington, New Zealand Police deputy commissioner John Tims said.
They will be returned to the mainland before being transferred to Auckland.
Drones had located the six bodies before the mission began, but Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement warned yesterday there would be "very limited" opportunity to search for the other two.
Scientists said the alert level remained the same as it was on Monday, but vigorous steam and mud bursts were still coming from the site of the eruption and conditions remained "highly volatile".
An update from GeoNet, New Zealand's geological monitoring service, this morning said volcanic tremor levels were still high when compared with pre-eruption levels, but had improved overnight.
It said the alert remained at a level two out of five.
Police, military and other personnel monitored the recovery operation from a ship stationed just off the island. Volcanologists onboard used electronic equipment on the island to provide the recovery team with real-time information on the volcano's behaviour.
New Zealand police had previously ruled out going to the island because of fears the volcano could erupt again, but faced growing pressure from families desperate to see their loved ones' bodies returned.
Members of the victims' families attended a blessing ceremony at sea before the mission began.
Before today's recovery mission, six Australians were confirmed to have died. That number will rise with the formal identification of the recovered bodies.
Eleven injured Australians have been moved from New Zealand hospitals to be closer to home, with two more to be moved in the next 24 hours.
Survivors are being treated in hospitals across New Zealand and in Australia, and have suffered burns on up to 90 per cent of their bodies.