Police divers returned to the waters around New Zealand‘s volcanic Whakaari island at dawn on Saturday to search for the remaining two victims of an eruption that left at least 16 dead and dozens severely burned.
Military specialists on Friday recovered six bodies from the island in a carefully planned but risky operation.
Two more bodies of victims known to have been on the island could not be located during the four-hour operation, carried out by bomb disposal experts – six men and two women – wearing yellow hazmat suits and breathing apparatuses.
Police believe one of the missing bodies was sighted in the water close to the island by rescue teams on Tuesday, the day after the eruption. The location of the other body is not known.
New Zealand: Eight missing after volcanic eruption ‘likely dead’
Divers began the search for the bodies on Friday but were forced to stop near evening when weather conditions deteriorated. An aerial search of the island was suspended at nightfall.
Meanwhile, the six bodies were transported to Auckland for identification.
In a statement, police said their own experts, forensic pathologists, scientists, odontologists and coroner’s officials were involved in the work of identification. Under New Zealand law, the coroner must confirm the victims’ identities.
Police said the process may take some time, though they are working as quickly as possible to return the bodies to their families.
“We know that reunification won’t ease that sense of loss or grief because I don’t think anything can,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said at a news conference on Friday.
The families cheered and expressed joy and relief upon being told of the successful recovery, Police Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha said.
“They’ve got their loved ones coming home,” he said.
The bodies were airlifted to a nearby ship where the risky operation was monitored. Toxic volcanic gases are still venting from the crater, and scientists say another eruption is possible.
The bodies are thought to be of Australians, who were most of the visitors to the island when the volcano erupted.
Families of victims of the Whakaari island eruption walk to the Whakatane wharf following a blessing at sea ahead of the daring recovery operation on Friday [Mark Baker/AP]
The two remaining victims are believed to be New Zealanders – a tour guide and a boat captain who had taken tourists to the island.
Scientists have warned that Whakaari, also known as White Island, which is the exposed tip of a mostly undersea volcano, is highly volatile, and has been venting steam and mud regularly.
The eruption on Monday occurred as 47 tourists and their guides were exploring the island.
Of the 15 injured, 11 remain in “very critical” condition. All 13 Australians who suffered burns have been returned to Australia, he said.
Specialist medical teams were heading to New Zealand from Australia, Britain and the United States. Skin banks were also sending tissue to New Zealand hospitals to use for grafts for those who had burns.
Authorities say 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian were on the island at the time.
Many were from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that had left Sydney two days earlier.