As it happened: Police attempting to recover bodies 'at first light' on Friday

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Eight people have been confirmed dead following White Island's eruption on Monday. 

Eight more bodies remain on the island. NZ Police deputy commissioner Mike Clement confirmed the whereabouts of six of the bodies are known - but two remain unaccounted for.

Scientists are warning seismic activity on the island has increased and there is a 50 to 60 percent chance of another eruption within the next 24 hours.

A recovery plan has been devised and New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel will attempt to recover the bodies from the volcano "at first light" on Friday.

What you need to know:

  • A devastating volcanic eruption occurred on White Island / Whakaari at 2:11pm on Monday - the biggest for the volcano in recent history.

  • Forty-seven people visited the island on Monday. Of those, eight are confirmed dead and 21 remain in New Zealand hospitals. Seven people have been transferred to Australia with an additional six to be tranferred in the next 24 hours. Three people have been discharged and eight bodies remain on the island.
  • GNS Science confirmed the volcano is becoming increasingly unstable, with a 50-60 percent chance of another eruption in the next 24 hours.
  • 1.2 million square-centimetres of skin will be required to treat the patients. One or two patients have burns to 90 percent of their bodies.

  • NZDF personnel will attempt to recover the bodies from White Island "at first light" on Friday morning in a high-risk operation. 
  • Deputy commissioner Mike Clement confirmed police know the whereabouts of six of the eight missing bodies. The other two have not been located.

These live updates have ended.

9:20pm - Earlier on Thursday, NZ Police deputy commissioner Mike Clement spoke in a media briefing regarding Friday morning's recovery effort.

"Tomorrow morning, New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) 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," he said.

"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."

Clement said he wouldn't go into great detail regarding the plan but noted the high-risk nature of the recovery operation.

He said the families of the victims who are not in New Zealand will be kept updated via audio file.

"We will do what we have to do as quickly as possible and get off the island," Clement said, reiterating the danger NZDF personnel will be in during the operation.

To watch the full briefing, click here.

9:08pm - GNS have released maps showing the danger of White Island on Thursday compared to 10 days ago. Read more here.

8:52pm - Whakatane Hospital's emergency department was used to resuscitate and stabilise the most critical patients. The small team of two doctors and six nurses were confronted with one of the country's largest natural disasters. Read more about Whakatane Hospital and its response to the disaster here.

"I've never seen this number of critically injured patients coming into an emergency department in a short space of time," Dr Heike Hundemer, Whakatane Hospital's clinical leader, told reporters.

"For many of us it feels surreal. Everyone deals with tragic events in their own way... many of us are still coming to terms with what happened," said Whakatane Hospital co-ord David van Dijk.

8:31pm - Extra staffing resources are being flown to New Zealand from the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom, as well as large quantities of skin. 

"They continue to require the highest level of care and a small number are very unwell," Dr Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health, told reporters on Thursday in a media briefing.

White Island tourguide Jake Milbank remains in a critical condition. Eighty percent of the 19-year-old's body was burnt in the eruption.

"The skin grafts are $4 per square-centimetre," said Dr Bloomfield. "So we've already ordered about $1.5 million worth."

8:18pm - Medical evacuations of the survivors are almost complete, the injured being transferred to Melbourne and Sydney. By Friday, only one Australian patient will remain in a New Zealand hospital. 

Newshub's Australia correspondant, Conor Whitten, said the patients "are stable enough" to make the journey across the Tasman - but that does not guarantee they will survive.

Some of the 10 patients being transferred to Sydney have life-threatening injuries and face a very long stay in intensive care.

Many of the patients are being treated at Sydney's Concord Hospital, which contains a "world-class" burns unit.

Whitten said although five or six patients are waiting to be flown across the Tasman, the medical evacuations will "take the pressure off" New Zealand's burns units and bring the injured closer to their families.

8:07pm - Although eight people have been confirmed dead, the eight bodies that remain on the island indicate the death toll will soon climb to 16 - at least nine of them being Australian.

By Friday, almost all of the Australian survivors will have been flown back home.

Sydney schoolboys and brothers Matthew and Ben Holander, 13 and 16 respectively, were confirmed dead on Thursday. Their parents, Martin and Barbara, remain unaccounted for.

"We are absolutely heartbroken by this loss. Ben and Matthew were wonderfully kind and spirited boys who lived short but very fulsome lives," the Hollander family said in a statement.

Adelaide lawyer Gavin Dallow, 53, and his 15-year-old stepdaughter Zoe Hosking were confirmed dead on Wednesday.

Overnight, Jason Griffiths succumbed to his injuries and died in hospital. The 33-year-old, from Coffs Harbour in Sydney, had travelled to White Island from the Ovation of the Seas cruise shop with two other friends - Richard Elzer and Karla Mathews, both 32. Their bodies remain on the island.

Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said: "Sadly, there are 10 further Australians who are missing and presumed deceased. In the days ahead, there will be worse news."

Krystal Browitt, 21, is among the missing. In Melbourne, her neighbours are holding on to hope.

"My legs and hands are shaking. I'm hoping and praying the younger one comes home safely... I have no words how beautiful they were," Suprita Konda, Browitt's neighbour, told media.

7:41pm - Whakatane District Mayor, Judy Turner, said: "The past three days have been incredibly difficult for the community and several families... it's pleasing to hear of the development of a plan to retrieve the bodies."

She sent her best wishes to those undertaking the recovery mission.

7:33pm - New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel will undertake Friday's recovery effort.

"We will make every effort to recover the bodies... from there, we'll move the bodies back to the mainland. I have to reiterate the risk has not gone, the risk remains present. The volcano, the weather, environmental factors... a lot has to go right for it to work," Clement said.

"They are putting themselves in harm's way... the chances of success will be determined by things beyond our control."

Clement confirmed eight people are missing.

"We can see six bodies, but we know we are missing eight people. We know exactly where those six people are. Our first priority will be to get those six people off. We will have limited opportunity to look for those other two bodies, we suspect they are there somewhere. Tomorrow, we can't find more than six."

7:25pm - Police will head to White Island at "first light" on Friday.

"We have a plan," deputy commissioner Mike Clement announced during Thursday evening's media briefing in Whakatane.

"The team has been working tirelessly, at 12pm they presented options for consideration.

"We've had to build opportunities to bail out into the plan, if things don't go our way."

Clement reiterated the risks involved with the recovery operation.

"The risk has not passed... we have had to be particularly cautious with the planning process. We don't expect anything to change overnight or tomorrow in regards to the risk... we've planned with that being the case.

"A 130 Hercules aircraft landed at Whakatane Airport today, carrying specialist people and equipment, so we have the right capability on the ground to undertake this task. Not everyone in the NZ Police and other agencies have the necessary skills - it requires very specialist skills. The people who will be protected by this equipment are few and far between. [We had to ensure] we have the right people, the right skills, the right equipment, so we can move tomorrow."

6:46pm - 7 News reporter Mac Lyon has captured a third Australian patient being flown home on a chartered Airbus.

Another 7 News journalist has captured the "beautiful tributes" left at the Whakatane port cordon for those killed in the eruption.

6:42pm - Police deputy commissioner Mike Clement will speak to media to provide an update on the plan to recover the bodies on Whakaari/ White Island.

The media briefing will take place at Whakatane District Council with an expected start time of 7:15pm. A link to the livestream will become available soon. 

6:14pm - Duty volcanologist Geoff Kilgour said White Island's "volcanic tremor has decreased but it is still very high compared to normal levels".

"Vigorous steam and mud bursts continue from the active vent area... the situation remains highly volatile," he said in an update on GeoNet's website.

"There is an extremely low likelihood of any potential ash affecting the mainland but people may smell gas, depending on the prevailing wind direction."

6:04pm - Players in the Australia vs New Zealand cricket match in Perth today will wear black armbands to honour the White Island victims, according to Cricket Australia.

5:56pm - GeoNet has released a list of frequently asked questions on White Island for the public.

You can read the list here.

5:27pm - An NZ Blood spokesperson has confirmed the agency is seeking donors to replenish its plasma levels following the ongoing treatment of those injured in the eruption.

The spokesperson said NZ Blood needs to replenish its stock of Type AB, typically considered the "universal" plasma. 

She said the amount of blood used in the treatment of White Island patients means the agency will quickly need to get its supply back up to its usual stock levels.

5:16pm - GNS Science has tweeted one of their maps used to illustrate White Island's risk levels during the 3:30pm press conference. Senior scientist and volcanic geologist Graham Leonard said the red zone indicates a "no-go" area.

GNS scientists would require special permission to enter White Island's yellow zones.

5:10pm - Officials will provide more updates on the White Island eruption and the recovery process at 5:30pm. You can watch the livestream of the press conference on Newshub's website.

4:55pm - Dr Heike Hundemer from Whakatane Hospital says they used every bed available to care for the victims.

4:40pm - Newshub's Lisette Reymer says Thursday afternoon's announcement that police will return to the island on Friday will be hugely significant for families.

4:37pm - Director General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says medical professionals are working around the clock.

"They [victims] continue to require the highest level of care and a small number are very unwell."

4:33pm - Passengers on the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship are unable to relax as the scale of the tragedy is realised. 

The passengers have arrived in Wellington. Some were at White Island when it erupted - and one told Newshub continuing the trip has been difficult.

"You're trying to enjoy your time, but at the back of your mind you can think about what happened."

4:30pm - Families are learning the details of how bodies on White Island will be recovered on Friday morning.

Police confirmed a short time ago that a plan is being finalised, and loved ones are being informed.

4:12pm - A dramatic extended video of the last tour on White Island reveals a guide's concerns about the volcano just before the deadly eruption.

In a chilling moment during the clip, someone can be heard saying, "I'm a little bit worried why it's going green", as the camera points to green water on the ground.

Read more here.

4:06pm - The volcano remains a 50 to 60 percent chance of eruption in the next 24 hours.

GNS Science's Graham Leonard says it's an unpredictable situation.

"It could change very rapidly - but it's highly uncertain because of that changing nature, especially of tremor," he told reporters.

4:00pm - The 1.2 million sqcm of skin ordered will cost $1.5 million, health officials say.

3:38pm - GNS Science says White Island's conditions remain "highly volatile".

3:36pm - Officials confirm 21 eruption vicitms remain in New Zealand hospitals.

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says it's a mammoth task.

"Seven Australian patients so far have been returned to Australia in intensive care capable aircraft, and six further patients are planned to be transferred in the following 24 hours."

3:34pm - Authorities responding to the White Island eruption are providing updates on the patients, the volcano and the recovery process.

Watch live here.

3:22pm - A plan to recover the bodies from White Island will be finalised on Friday morning, Deputy Police Commissioner John Tims says.

"Families will be brief on the operation at 4:30pm and Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement will speak with media in Whakatane.

"Details for the media briefing will be confirmed shortly."

As it happened: Police attempting to recover bodies 'at first light' on Friday

3:18pm - Whakatane Hospital co-ordinator David Van Dyk says the aftermath of the eruption was devastating.

Everyone pulled together, he told reporters, even staff who weren't health experts.

3:15pm - Health Minister David Clark says the trauma that hospital staff endured will stay with them for a long time.

"It's a small, tight-knit community," he told reporters. "They are sharing their experiences with their fellow staff, working through the situations that have occurred."

2:26pm - Adelaide woman Lisa Dallow will be retrived from Hamilton Hospital on Thursday and flown back to Australia, according to media reports.

Lisa Dallow and her husband and her husband Gavin.
Lisa Dallow and her husband and her husband Gavin. Photo credit: Facebook

According to 7 News, the 48-year-old mother, who was severely burned in the eruption, will return to Adelaide by plane on Thursday night.

Her husband is confirmed dead while their daughter is still considered missing, but understood to have died.

2:09pm - Police Minister Stuart Nash told reporters the "number one priority" is to get the victims off the island.

"However, this must be done in a way that minimises further casualties," he says.

"Police on the ground here are doing everything they can to get those victims off the island."

2:00pm - Health Minister David Clark says New Zealanders can be proud of how the health system responded following the tragedy.

"The fact that they [Whakatane Hospital] have a mass casualty plan in place and were going through exercises recently was very helpful," he told reporters.

"They worked quickly, they worked calmly."

1:55pm - A press conference is being held by Police Minister Stuart Nash and Health Minister David Clark.

Watch live here as they update media on the response.

1:41pm - Dramatic extended video shows the last tour on White Island before its deadly eruption - and the eerie aftermath.

The video was posted to YouTube by Brazilian tourist Allessandro Kauffmann.

Watch the full clip here.

1:36pm - Health Minister David Clark is set to give an update following his visit to Whakatane Hospital. 

Police say it is still too risky to recover the bodies on the island. 

1:32pm - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says everyone is desperate to retrieve the bodies left on White Island.

She says everyone wants the recovery operation to begin as soon as possible.

1:10pm - Ovation of the Seas will set sail for Australia on Friday. It was originally scheduled to stay longer in Tauranga before heading to Wellington and Picton.
Rhys Welbourn, chief executive of Port Marlborough, told Stuff the ship is set to leave for Australia on Friday afternoon, ahead of schedule.

The vessel will arrive in Picton at 5:30am and depart for Australia at 5:30pm on the same day, Welbourn said. 

It was originally set to arrive in Picton on December 29.

12:40pm - Police have revealed why a patrol boat from Auckland spent hours very close to White Island on Wednesday morning. According to two live marine trackers, the Deodar 111 - a twin-hull patrol boat operated by the Auckland Maritime Unit - was just off the volcanic island's landing area at around 7:45am on Wednesday. The full story can be read here.

12:25pm - Police said they may consult with families about the possibility of carrying out a high-speed recovery operation.

Family consultation would be necessary because due to time-pressure normal protocols could not be followed, meaning there was a risk that vital evidence could be left behind.

11:35am - GeoNet has warned the likelihood of an eruption in the next 24 hours has increased to 50-60 percent or a "medium" likelihood. It was previously at 40-60 percent.

11:18am - Medical specialists from Australia have sent a message to their Kiwi counterparts dealing with the aftermath of the eruption.

The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMOF), Australia's senior doctors' union, sent the message to express their admiration to those working here.

"We have been following the events unfolding in NZ from this side of the Tasman with great sadness, but also admiration for the emergency response teams and the medical staff caring for the survivors," wrote Geoff Dodd, the association's president.

"The workload for your plastic surgeons, intensivists, anaesthetists and others who support them must be extreme, especially given the health services were already working at and beyond capacity."

"On behalf of ASMOF may I offer our support for your members who are directly or indirectly involved in the medical response to the care of victims of the volcanic explosion."

11:00am - Fournier said GNS would not send any of its scientists to the island based on the current level of risk.

 "The level of risk right now is far too high for sending one of our staff out there."

10:55am - Clement says at midday he will reassess the situation based on information from experts and decide the next steps in the operation.

10:47am - Clement admitted it is a possibility the bodies won't be recovered.

"Like everybody else, I'm worried that we don't get out there to recover those bodies. And it's my job to make sure I push the planning team to ensure that doesn't happen."

10:45am - Clement said police still believe there to be eight people on the island. One person has died in hospital but is still listed as missing, he said, because police have not been able to contact next-of-kin in order to identify the victim.

10:29am - GNS scientist Nico Fournier says there is a risk that magma could flow out of the volcano if it erupts again.

"Magma is present at a shallow level," Fournier said. "This means the next eruption could involve magma - being hotter, possibly being more powerful as well."

10:22am - Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement says police are continuing to monitor the situation and cannot ignore the risk of eruption.

"We have that in the forefront of our thinking,"  said Clement.

He said police were not only concerned about the risk of an eruption but also the presence of hazardous gases on the island.

10:15am - GNS say the risk of the volcano erupting again has not changed much today, and remains between 40 and 60 percent.

10:09am - Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner told media that she is getting  "very clear messaging" from her community.

"I need to make it clear that while we fully appreciate the need for the safety of any recovery team going on  Whakaari/White Island to retrieve our loved ones, we are now living with a growing sense of desperation to bring home those who we know are there, those we love," Tunrer said.

"The frustration of those families most affected is completely understandable."

Clear communication and updates is more necessary than ever, Turner said.

"No news is not good news for people in this situation."

10:00am - Police are addressing media to give an update about the White Island operation.

9:45am - Police will be speaking to media at 10am to give an update on the White Island operation.

8:30am - Two victims of the White Island eruption have been named as brothers Berend and Matthew Hollander, reports News.com.au.

The death of the boys, who were aged 16 and 13 respectively, was announced in a letter from their school.

"It is with the greatest sadness that I can confirm that Matthew Hollander (Year 8) and Berend (known at 'Ben') Hollander (Year 10) have passed away in hospital as a result of injuries sustained in the White Island volcano eruption," the school's headmaster Scott James wrote, according to News.com.au. "Please take some time to reflect on the lives of Matthew and Ben and this devastating loss for our community."

The boys' parents remain missing.

Berend and Matthew Hollander.
Berend and Matthew Hollander. Photo credit: AAP

8:10am - The Ovation of the Seas has arrived in Wellington. The ship was blessed by local iwi as it came in to the port.

Their deaths of the boys, who were aged 16 and 13 respectively, was announced in a letter from their school's principal.

8:00am - Speaking to The AM Show, Mark Inman says communication from authorities has been "appalling".

"They're not listening. They're not communicating," he said. 

Inman, who is pushing to get back to the island to recover the body of his brother Hayden Marshall-Inman, says there will always be a risk the volcano will erupt. If authorities wait until there is no risk at all, the recovery will never happen, he says. 

"You go back over the last 30 years, everyday there's the likelihood of an eruption - how's it any different?"

He is urging police to act now.

"The longer we leave the situation the worse the bodies are getting. You've gone from a situation where my brother was recognisable to a state - who knows now with the conditions out there."

7:35am - Friends of three Australian victims have released a joint statement mourning the loss of their mates.

Jason Griffiths, Karla Mathews and Richard Elzer were travelling together on the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship. 

Griffiths was confirmed to have passed away in hospital "surrounded by friends and family members", while Mathews and Elzer were still on the island and presumed dead, according to the statement, which was issued by Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), reports news.com.au.

"On the 9th of December 2019, we were devastated by the news that three of our friends were visiting White Island on a shore excursion during the time of the eruption," the statement said.

"Some time later, we discovered that two of our friends, Richard Elzer and Karla Mathews, were still on the island. We have been advised that there are no signs of life on the island.

"We then located our third friend, Jason Griffiths, in a hospital in the early hours of the next morning.

"From that moment until the moment of his passing, Jason was surrounded by friends and family members.

"We are incredibly saddened to have lost three of our closest friends."

7:12am - Two more people have been confirmed dead, bringing the official death toll to eight. Police said one of the people who died was being treated at Middlemore Hospital and the other at Waikato Hospital.

7:05am - Although scientists say it's too dangerous to return to the island at the moment, police are assuring families that resources are on standby.

"As soon as we are confident that there are no risks and that those risks can be managed when we return to the island we will do so," said Deputy Commissioner John Tims.

"Those deployed would face serious physical and chemical hazardous and we must be prepared for that. We have disaster victim identification specialists in Whakatane ready to be deployed."

6:45am - A Givealittle page set up for Jake Milbank has raised more than $46,000 so far. 

Milbank, who turned 19 on Monday, was working as a tour guide when White Island erupted. He suffered burns to 80 percent of his body.

He is currently in Auckland's Middlemore Hospital being support by his family.

6:15am - Police Minister Stuart Nash has said he will not allow Mark Inman, the brother of victim Hayden Marshall-Inman, to go to the island to retrieve Hayden's body. 

"We will not give anyone permission to go to the island," Nash said.

Mark had written a letter to the Prime Minister asking for a pardon to retrieve the body.

5:45am - Recovery efforts remained stalled this morning, as GNS scientists warn there is a risk the volcano will erupt again. They say seismic activity on the island has increased and that there could be an eruption of a similar size to Monday's deadly blast within the next 24 hours.

5:30am - Leadership of the White Island operation changed overnight. In a late-night media conference, Police Minister Stuart Nash announced that Mike Clement would be diverted away from the Government's buyback scheme to take over leadership.

Nash called for more transparency in the operation.

"It is important that all parties remain fully informed of developments as and when they occur.  I expect a level of transparency and openness that perhaps has not existed until now," he said.

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