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Six bodies successfully recovered from Whakaari-White Island

Six of the bodies on Whakaari-White Island have successfully been recovered and taken to the waiting HMNZS Wellington, ready to be taken back to the mainland. Live coverage of the operation as it happened this morning below.

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Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement spoke to media as crews worked to get eruption victims off the island. Source: 1 NEWS

Key points:

  • Eight people are confirmed dead so far, with eight others still on the island and presumed dead.
  • A specialist team from Police and NZDF are going to try recover the bodies today, heading out at first light.
  • GNS volcanologists say there's a 50 to 60 per cent chance of another eruption.

1.20pm: This concludes 1 NEWS' morning/early afternoon coverage, click here for the latest updates.

1.02pm: An update on the patients' statuses will be provided later today, the National Emergency Management Agency says.

The most recent update was around 9.30am, saying 17 people were being treated across Middlemore, Hutt Valley, Waikato and Christchurch hospitals.

Thirteen people remain in critical condition as of that update.

12.50pm: All six bodies are believed to belong to Australians, according to the Australian Foreign Minister.

"I think it is difficult to say in advance of the formal process but we know, and we have been advised by authorities, that that is expected to be the case, yes," Marise Payne told the Australian Associated Press.

If the six recovered bodies are all Australian tourists, it would mean the bodies of the two Whakatāne tour guides remain missing on the island.

One of the pilots who first responded to the disaster said he had moved the body of Kiwi Hayden Marshall-Inman to "make him comfortable".

12.45pm: Police say they'll address media soon with an update, which 1 NEWS will live stream online.

12.37pm: Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha says the bodies will be flown to Whakatāne before heading up to Auckland, where post-mortems will be completed.

Around 40 vehicles have already gathered at Whakatāne Airport, passing through a cordon and screened by security before entry.

12.26pm: Deputy Commissioner John Tims says the recovery team are safe and well on the HMNZS Wellington, as the six recovered bodies return to mainland before being transferred to hospital.

Two more bodies remain on the island, but police had earlier said there would be "limited opportunity" to search for them.

"I would like to acknowledge the recovery team for their efforts and the bravery they have shown today.

"I would also like to acknowledge all the agencies involved in the recovery operation and Police and New Zealand Defence Force staff for their dedication and commitment to our response over the last five days.

"To the families and the Whakatane community I understand this has been a tragic and harrowing time and our thoughts and prayers are with you all."

The statement did not provide an update on the two missing bodies.

12.24pm: More than $120,000 has been raised for two Kiwi tour guides injured in the eruption.

Kelsey Waghorn and Jake Milbank both suffered severe burns during the eruption.

At this stage, almost $85,000 has been raised for Mr Milbank and more than $50,000 for Ms Waghorn.

Two other tour guides are believed dead on the island, Hayden Marshall-Inman and Tipene Maangi.

12.17pm: Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement says it was emotional for the families who went close to the island this morning, as part of a blessing on the sea.

"I think people got a great sense of fulfilment, able to grieve close to their whanau," he told 1 NEWS.

Many of the victims are Australians and other tourists.

"I think for those who don't come from this place, they saw something of the New Zealand culture and understand the way that we are," Mr Clement says.

"I think that it was a fantastic opportunity for everybody so, it's as I said very deeply emotional for everybody involved, including the police staff who were on the boat."

He says conditions on the island are manageable, although not perfect.

11.54am: Families are gathered at Whakatāne's Te Mānuka Tūtahi marae as they wait for more news.

There were sighs of relief when they were told six bodies had been recovered, Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha told RNZ.

The planning team are working through the process of recovering the two remaining bodies, he says.

11.50am: The grandmother of one of the missing Whakatāne tour guides says she's hoping he's one of the six bodies that have been recovered so far.

Ruku Tawahiorangi's grandson Tipene Maangi is believed to have died in the eruption, and remembers him fondly.

"All the mokos are favourites, but when we talk about favourite moko, he was the entertainer of the lot," she told 1 NEWS.

"Everybody liked being around him like when they had their parties.

"I'm hoping that he's one of the six. "

11.37am: Three helicopters have just landed at Whakatāne Airport in the span of 10 minutes, 1 NEWS reporter Paul Hobbs says.

11.23am: The level of volcanic tremor has dropped overnight, but is still "very high" compared to before the eruption, GNS says.

Its latest update says steam and hot mud is still bursting from the active vent area, calling the situation still "highly volatile". The alert level remains at 2, which means there's moderate unrest but it's not actively erupting.

Some equipment is covered in ash and may stop functioning over the weekend, but other monitoring equipment is still running.

The likelihood of an eruption will be updated later this morning, volcanologist Craig Miller says.

11.11am: Six of the eight bodies have been successfully recovered and are now on board the HMNZS Wellington, ready to head back to the mainland, police say.

Two remain missing on the island.

Police were able to identify the locations of the six recovered bodies before they headed out on the mission, but the locations of the missing two are still unknown.

11.03am: 1 NEWS has filmed part of the recovery mission underway this morning, from a boat off the coast of Whakatāne.

An NZDF helicopter can be seen flying near the volcano, the HMNZS Wellington ship also visible off-shore.

Heavy mist and smoke cloaks the island on the overcast day.

Click the link to watch the video.

10.52am: One body has been successfully recovered and is on the HMNZS Wellington, ready for transport, police say.

The operation to recover the remaining bodies continues.

10.50am: With the latest development two bodies still remain missing on the island.

Police warned last night that they'd have "very limited" opportunity to search for them.

10.41am: Local helicopter pilots weren't the only ones keen to jump in and help retrieve the bodies - a group of fishermen were also ready to take matters into their own hands.

Mick Brown, owner of Club Talk Charters and friend of missing tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman, told RNZ they were warned about the dangers by police in a private briefing.

"They're saying now that the island is that gassy that you could have one breath and it could either kill you or wreck your body system forever, so we've just got to wait and pray that they get them off with all the decent breathing apparatus."

He says they were also warned that moving the bodies incorrectly could harm the identification efforts, by disturbing vital identifying features like fingerprints.

10.29am: Police have begun the process of transporting six of the bodies from White Island to HMNZS Wellington, a Navy waiting vessel off the coast of the island.

"Six bodies have been prepared for air lifting off Whakaari/White Island and the process to transport them to HMNZS Wellington by helicopter has begun," Deputy Commissioner John Tims says.

10.16am: The recovery operation is "well advanced", Deputy Commissioner John Tims says, with favourable conditions.

It's expected to take another couple of hours.

9.52am: Medical staff continue to work around the clock to save the lives of those injured in the eruption.

Many of the survivors are suffering severe burns to significant amounts of their body, the unprecedented injuries presenting major challenges.

Counties Manukau DHB's chief medical officer, Dr Peter Watson, told Breakfast there's been incredible coordination from hospitals across the country.

"This is a unique event in New Zealand. We have not experienced the volcanic eruption injuries, certainly not on this scale, so for many people this will be the first and only time that this experience has happened," he says.

"I think New Zealand needs to be incredibly proud of the system we've got."

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Counties Manukau Health Chief Medical Officer Dr Peter Watson say the health system ‘had a plan’ to deal with such an event. Source: Breakfast

9.30am: Just under 20 people remain in hospitals around New Zealand, the Ministry of Health says. Most of the injured suffered severe burns.

Seventeen people are being treated across Middlemore, Hutt Valley, Waikato and Christchurch hospitals. Thirteen of them are in a critical condition.

Eleven people have been transferred to Australian hospitals.

9.18am: The recovery effort is "going to plan" so far, Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement says in a just-issued statement.

"The recovery team is in the area where we believe the majority of the bodies are.

"The operation is taking more time than expected, this is due to the protective equipment the recovery team is wearing which can be restrictive and heavy but is necessary.

"Conditions for the operation are good in regard to the weather, sea state and the environment on the island."

9.17am: The situation is still pretty risky on White Island, and not just because of a potential eruption. Scientists warn the gases from Monday's eruption are so toxic and damaging, a single breath could be fatal.

The gases are heavier than normal air and sink down, with wind needed to blow them away.

For the eight specialists on the ground at the moment, it's a serious risk. They'll be wearing protective clothing and using breathing apparatuses to try and recover the bodies.

9.06am: Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner was there as the family representatives arrived back at the wharf.

She left in tears after the visibly emotional return.

Yesterday, she shared the frustration being felt from the Whakatāne community.

"I need to make it clear while we fully appreciate need of the safety of any recovery team going onto Whakaari, to retrieve loved ones, we're now living with a growing sense of desperation to bring home those we know are there and love," she said.

8.58am: Things are looking good and the recovery operation will probably be wrapped up by midday, pilot Mark Law says.

Mr Law was one of the helicopter pilots who rescued people after the eruption, and was invited to help join the recovery operation team by police on Wednesday.

He told RNZ he's on standby in case they need him to help, with NZDF pilots the only ones on the mission.

"It won't be a lot longer. They're well organised and well-rehearsed so it should be quite a short operation, all going well," he says.

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Hero helicopter pilot allowed to join Whakaari/White Island recovery mission, with crews on standby

8.47am: To recap what we know about the recovery mission -

It's a joint operation between NZDF and police, with eight specialised staff flying in on NZDF helicopters.

The aim is to retrieve the bodies they can while also gathering evidence, which is likely to be used to help formally identify them.

Police say they know where six of the bodies are but will have "very limited" opportunity to search for the other two.

8.28am: Recovery teams have just landed on the island, police say.

8.24am: It's a highly emotional time at the Whakatāne wharf as the family representatives return.

1 NEWS reporter Paul Hobbs says there are people crying and hugging each other as they depart the boat.

"It's been a very sombre and sober moment for those people," he says.

They were met with an emotional karanga from locals.

8.11am: The boat carrying representatives from the victims' families has returned to Whakatāne.

The White Island Tours vessel took off early this morning, at around 4.30am, and a blessing was performed at sea near the island before the recovery effort got underway.

Part of the wharf has been cordoned off as the boat docks.

8.02am: The HMNZS Wellington remains in the water off White Island, and it's carrying volcanologists among its team.

Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement says they've planned for an eruption so GNS scientists are included in the recovery team.

They're not setting foot on the island, but are working away in the Navy ship, monitoring data from the island live.

The police Deodar III boat is stationed closer to the island, according to live shiptrackers. While its purpose today is not confirmed, it was previously used to launch drones monitoring and examining the island.

7.55am: This morning's waiata and karakia was to help set the spiritual tone for a hopefully successful day of repatriation, Ngāti Awa Barb Philips told 1 NEWS.

"This was an opportunity for just an everyday Whakatāne citizen to come and offer support, spiritual support, to the uplifting of the deceased today over at Whakaari."

7.48am: White Island is shrouded with mist this morning, barely visible from Whakatāne in GeoNet's web camera.

Screenshot from GeoNet's web camera of Whakaari/White Island at 7.40am on December 13. Source: GeoNet

7.38am: Temperatures have dropped and it's now drizzling in Whakatāne at the moment, according to 1 NEWS reporter Yvonne Tahana at Whakatāne airport.

7.32am: What can we expect from the body recovery mission? 1 NEWS reporter Sam Kelway is on the water near White Island and filed this report.

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1 NEWS reporter Sam Kelway filed this report from out on the water off the active volcano. Source: Breakfast

7.19am: There's "definitely a risk" facing those undertaking the White Island recovery operation, a disaster risk and assessment expert says.

University of Canterbury's Dr Tom Wilson told Breakfast the risk of eruption is only one factor in the final call to go.

"From a volcanology science perspective, yes, there's a very high chance… there's a 50 to 60 per cent chance that there may be an eruption over that period," he says.

"I really stress the science here is here to help support the decision-making process."

7.06am: Police have issued their first formal update on the morning, saying a blessing has been held at sea.

"This morning a blessing was held at sea with representatives of the families of the victims of the Whakaari / White Island volcanic eruption," Deputy Commissioner John Tims said in a just-released statement.

"The family representatives are returning to the mainland and the operation to recover the eight bodies on the island has commenced."

6.58am: One of the NZDF helicopters has returned to Whakatāne airport.

6.54am: GNS volcanologist Geoff Kilgour has shared a message of support as the recovery effort kicks off.

"We all wish the recovery team the best of luck today as they head out to Whakaari," he wrote on Twitter.

"Even after considerable planning, there is still uncertainty. We'll play our role as best we can. Kia kaha everyone."

The latest estimation from volcanologists put the likelihood of another eruption between 50 to 60 per cent.

6.43am: A third boat is approaching the island, a marine tracker shows.

Police vessel DEODAR III remains off shore and a HMNZS Wellington is further out, with a third boat monitored nearby.

Families of the victims headed out to the island on a charter boat around two hours ago.

6.41am: A Westpac Rescue Helicopter has arrived in Whakatāne from Auckland, landing at Whakatāne Airport a short time ago.

An ambulance is also at the airport.

6.33am: A second helicopter can be seen heading to White Island from Whakatāne Airport.

6.25am: Some family and friends of the victims have an anxious wait ahead on the shoreline at Whakatāne.

Ngāti Awa members have gathered for a karakia and a waiata for the victims as the recovery attempt gets underway.

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The ceremony was held at dawn as recovery teams headed to the volcano. Source: 1 NEWS

6.19am: Authorities are planning a comparatively quick trip, planning to gather the bodies and gather as much evidence as they can as quickly as possible.

Yesterday Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement warned a rushed 'grab-and-go' mission could risk compromising the ability to formally identify the dead, by damaging or being unable to gather crucial evidence.

However he said it was something they would consider with the consent of the families.

6.08am: Police confirm the recovery operation is officially underway, media report.

6.05am: Police say they know where six of the bodies are, but will have limited time to look for the remaining two.

Eight specialist staff will land on the island for the recovery mission.

5.54am: The police Deodar III vessel remains near White Island, according to an online ship tracker. 

5.47am: Dawn has broken over Whakatāne. Helicopters can be seen flying towards White Island from Whakatāne Airport.

5.44am: In case you missed it - yesterday's full statement from Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement.

Tomorrow morning we have a plan, the resources and the capability to the recover the bodies on Whakaari / White Island.

The plan is contingent on a number of risk factors which will be assessed at the time. These factors include the conditions on the island and the weather.

Tomorrow morning New Zealand Defence Force assets and people with specialist capabilities from Defence, Police and other agencies will undertake the operation. Returning the bodies on the island to their loved ones remains our focus.

We have the right people with the right skills and the right equipment.

We will make every effort to recover all of the bodies however our plan is subject to things beyond our control such as the island and the weather.

A lot has to go right for us tomorrow to make this work.

There is no zero risk option in regard to the plan but we have carefully considered it. We don’t expect the risk to change tonight or tomorrow but we have planned for it.

5.32am: Ngāti Awa are holding a dawn ceremony along the sea shore looking out to Whakaari/White Island.

It's in support of the joint police-NZDF operation to recover the remaining bodies from the island.

5.17am: Families of the victims, police, NZDF personnel and others have headed to White Island this morning in darkness.

They're travelling on a White Island Tours boat, and there was a quiet and sombre mood and people boarded.

It coincides with the joint police and NZDF effort to recover the bodies this morning, launching at dawn.