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Whakaari: Dive squad and aerial search for two missing

This story first appeared on RNZ.co.nz and is republished with permission.

Police have deployed the dive squad into the waters around Whakaari-White Island as they seek to recover the bodies of the final two victims of Monday's eruption.

Further aerial searches will also be carried out this afternoon.

Police commissioner Mike Bush

Police commissioner Mike Bush Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Six bodies have been recovered after a team worked on Whakaari-White Island four four hours today. They are being moved from HMNZS Wellington to the Whakatāne airport.

They will be placed in coffins, then hearses  - and whānau will receive them before they are flown to Auckland later this evening by Hercules.

Speaking at a press conference police commissioner Mike Bush said at least one of the remaining two bodies could be in the water surrounding the island.

Bush said the entire event had been harrowing for both the community and particularly for the whānau and friends involved.

The operation - which started at 8am today - went to plan, said Bush. He recognised the expertise of NZDF personnel and other emergency staff who were able carry out the operation.

"It's not over yet. The operation was not without risk."

The circumstances were unpredictable and challenging, Bush said, who praised the courage of those involved.

The father of one of the tour guides missing on Whakaari-White Island spent most of the morning at the cordon at the Whakatāne boat ramp.

Tipene Maangi's father told RNZ he didn't want to be anywhere else today, as the shoreline was where he felt closest to his son.

He has surrounded himself with friends and has his phone close for updates, he said.

There are 15 injured people receiving hospital care in New Zealand - and seven others have been airlifted to Australian hospitals, with six more to go today. The extent of their injuries is such that skin is being brought in from Australia and the United States for grafts.

From earlier:

Yesterday, Whakatāne Hospital staff told of how they needed to use every single bed space and all its resources to deal with the first victims from the eruption.

Staff spoke at a press conference outside the hospital, along with Health Minister David Clark and Police Minister Stuart Nash.

Whakatāne Hospital medical leader Dr Heike Hundemer said staff at the hospital held mass casualty training exercises, but what they were faced with on Monday was "beyond comprehension".

While they would normally have about six nurses and two doctors in the ED, on Monday there was about 100 staff, and they used every resource and bed space to care for the victims coming in,  Hundemer said.

"Monday is beyond anything we would have anticipated. I've never seen this number of critically injured patients coming into an emergency department in such a short space of time."

She said staff were affected by what they saw, and that they knew some of those they were treating or who had died.

Clark said he had met staff at Whakatāne Hospital about how Monday's eruption affected them, and it was clear New Zealanders should be proud of how the health system responded.

Nash acknowledged to families that communication between families and commander HQ had not been as good as it should have been.

He said a better process was now being put in place to rectify this.

Nash said it was the number one priority for police to recover the bodies on the island, but it must be done in a way that minimised the risk to those who would be involved in the operation.

The official death toll released by New Zealand authorities is eight, following two deaths overnight in hospital, one in Middlemore Hospital and the other in Waikato. Eight others on the island are presumed dead.

Flowers at the security cordon at the wharf at Whakatāne. Photo: Getty Images

The rāhui on Whakaari will only be lifted once all the bodies are off the island.

The senior cultural adviser to the Whakatāne District Council, Pouroto Ngaropo of Ngāti Awa, placed a rāhui on Whakaari on Tuesday to spiritually protect those left behind on the volcano.

Volcanic gas pressure remains high on the island, where steam and mud have been jetting from craters.

Duty volcanologist Craig Miller said the tremors indicate evidence of continued high gas pressures within the volcano.

"The situation remains highly uncertain as to future activity. Eruptions in the next 24 hours are still likely to occur. Results from the gas flight conducted Tuesday afternoon are still being analysed.

"These are important for understanding the processes driving the volcanic activity. The gas flights are conducted in the air, hundreds of metres above the volcano and concentrations measured there may not reflect concentrations present in the crater floor.

"There is an extremely low likelihood of any potential ash affecting the mainland, but people may smell gas, depending on the prevailing wind direction. Our monitoring equipment continues to function and is providing us with continuous data on the volcano's activity."

Tour company staff rescuing survivors. Photo: Michael Schade

Earlier reports:

In the aftermath, stories of heroic rescue efforts emerged.

A helicopter pilot who rescued five of the injured has described how the people lying in the crater covered in ash were crying out for help as he carried them to his helicopter.

Mark Law, owner of Kāhu NZ which operates helicopters in eastern Bay of Plenty as well as tourism over White Island, was one of the pilots who flew onto the crater floor to save people after the eruption.

He and his colleague took two helicopters to the island and flew five people off each, and another two people were saved by the pilot of Volcanic air.

They had to leave two people, who were just barely alive, behind.

Helicopter pilot Mark Law. Photo: Supplied/Kahu New Zealand

Law told Morning Report he was driving from Tauranga when he saw the volcano had erupted.

"I noticed the plume and thought that [does] not look right, that looks a bit sinister."

He said they made calls out to PeeJay boats, of White Island Tours, and looked on cameras, which looked all black.

"We passed one of the PeeJay boats on the way out at low level to see whether there was some assistance beckoned and there was some CPR going on there, we made haste to the island.

"Once we got to the island, I flew around the crater and observed a lot of people in some very distressed states sprinkled throughout the crater floor, where we all walk during the guided tours."

When they landed, they ran around in search of survivors and were "very tragically met with some awful sights, a lot of people in some serious distress".

"Fortunately, we had another friend fly over with a plane and so he was able to relay information back because communication out there is not that good and he indicated that rescue services that were inbound weren't actually going to come to the island," Law said.

"So I made a decision to move the helicopter up to where the mass of people were and we started loading the helicopter."

He said the survivors they picked up were so badly injured they couldn't talk nor walk to the helicopter, and had to be carried.

Whakaari-White Island after the eruption. Photo: Bay of Plenty Civil Defence

On Monday, passenger Michael Schade told the Guardian the skipper of the boat he was had put on speed to get away from the volcano just moments after the eruption, but after the smoke cleared they could see a crowd of people and decided to return.

He said some of the tourists were screaming and others were in shock.

"Some people had pockets of burns, other people were fine, and others were really rough," he said.

Halfway back to mainland, a coastguard vessel met the boat and paramedics came on board.

A Hamilton man who was visiting Whakaari-White Island said his tour group used water bottles and any containers they could find to pour water on those severely burned after the eruption.

Geoff Hopkins was visiting the volcanic island with his daughter yesterday - their boat had finished its tour and was just heading back to Whakatāne when the eruption happened.

He said they turned around and helped pick up another group who were huddled on the shore.

Hopkins said the passengers and crew poured fresh water on those who had been on the island, many of whom were badly burned.

"We just started to treat burns, we had a lot of fresh water on board so we were able to use fresh water.

"We just called out for any containers that we could use and we got people to start filling them up.

"Just started to pour cool, fresh water over people's burns. The more critical ones we needed to remove clothing and wrap them up," Hopkins said.

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