White Island eruption as it happened: Six bodies recovered, search continuing for remaining two

Sixteen people are presumed dead following White Island's eruption on Monday.

Police say that six bodies have now been recovered and are on board the HMNZS Wellington.  

Two bodies remain unaccounted for, but further recovery attempts are being made.

According to Geonet the level of volcanic tremor declined overnight, but still remains high.

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, 16 people are presumed dead and 17 remain in New Zealand hospitals - 13 of whom are critical. Eleven people have been transferred to Australia and five people have been discharged.
  • NZDF commenced an operation on Friday morning to recover the bodies from White Island. Six were recovered, and attempts are being made to recover the final two.
  • 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.

These live updates have now ended.

6:35pm - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the recovery process was a hard wait for everyone.

Ardern told reporters a long identification process also awaits.

She also paid tribute to Ngāti Awa for their role as tangata whenua in leading and caring for victim's families.

6:27pm - For Whakatane, it's been a week of pain, sorrow and grief but on Friday morning, local iwi were determined to support the Whakaari/White Island families.

Many of them headed out onto the water to pray and bless White Island. Onshore, there were more prayers and waiata as a community grieved together.

Watch Emma Cropper's report here.

6:25pm - Watch Lisette Reymer's latest report on the erupton from Whakatane here.

5:33pm - GeoNet says the volcanic tremor at White Island has declined but remains high.

5:28pm - The Prime Minister met with those involved in the recovery mission and says they appeared to be in good health.

"As you can imagine it was a pretty exhausting day [for them]," Jacinda Ardern says.

5:24pm - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is refusing to speculate on any potential questions about risk analysis regarding the eruption.

"What concerns me is any speculation before we're able to look at these issues properly," she told reporters.

Ardern speaking to media.
Ardern speaking to media. Photo credit: Newshub.

5:19pm - Police Commissioner Mike Bush says the remaining two bodies have yet to be found.

5:09pm - Those involved in the recovery mission were "true professionals", Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says.

"There was of course a huge amount of courage still required to do what they did today [Friday]," she told reporters.

5:00pm - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is due to update media on the recovery mission.

Watch live here.

4:57pm - Counties Manukau Health is urging people to be patient as Middlemore Hospital treats eight victims of the eruption.

"The demand has put stress on a number of our services," said emergency department clinical director Dr Vanessa Thornton.

4:18pm - Chilling pictures posted to Facebook show the New Zealand Defence Force undertaking the "risky" recovery operation.

White Island eruption as it happened: Six bodies recovered, search continuing for remaining two
Photo credit: New Zealand Police

4:11pm - The Vector Lights Festive Show scheduled to start on Friday night has been delayed due to the eruption.

3:49pm - Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd’s potential liability for the deadly excursion to White Island could hinge on whether the eruption was an unforseeable "act of God", according to Reuters, citing maritime lawyers.

No legal action has been filed yet, but experts say they anticipate lawsuits to be taken out in courts in the US by passengers who were injured, and victim's families.

Royal Caribbean ticket terms posted on its website spell out that the company is not liable for any injury, death or loss of property caused by an "act of God", as well as war, terrorism or other events beyond the company’s control, Reuters reports.

Passengers would have to show Royal Caribbean did not take proper care to vet the operator, lawyers told Reuters.

Read more here.

TAURANGA, NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 10:  The Ovation of the Seas cruise ship that carried passengers who travelled to White Island when it erupted is seen berthed a Port of Tauranga on December 10, 2019 in Tauranga, New Zealand. 5 people are confirmed dead and several are missing following the volcanic eruption at White Island on Monday. (Photo by John Boren/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty

3:39pm - The doctor in charge of the burns unit in Sydney says it's been a challenge to treat those eruption victims transferred to NSW.

"The patients were enveloped by a moving cloud of extremely hot gases and also volcanic material such a pumice and dust," Dr Peter Haertsch told The Sydney Morning Herald.

"As a result, they have suffered severe contact skin burns with severe injuries due to inhalation of gas and ash, and we are looking at extensive and intensive care treatment for these patients, some whom are still in a life-threatening condition."

3:31pm - The aftermath of the eruption was described as a dark week by the Police Commissioner.

"This entire event has been a traumatic and harrowing event," Mike Bush says. 

3:28pm - Police Commissioner Mike Bush says recovery operation staff showed great bravery and will continue to do so.

"Those staff showed absolute courage," he told reporters. "There remains two more people that we need to find."

Mike Bush speaking to media.
Mike Bush speaking to media. Photo credit: Newshub.

2:59pm - Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will speak to media from the Whakatane District Council offices at 4:30pm.

2:44pm - US ambassdor to New Zealand Scott Brown says the disaster was unspeakably difficult. 

He says the quiet gestures of kindness provided comfort to many in the face of near-impossible decisions. 

2:40pm - Moving moments have emerged from the mayhem of the eruption, US ambassador to New Zealand Scott Brown says.

"I'd like to take a moment to acknowledge anyone and everyone who has helped.

"In the immediate aftermath of the eruption, extremely brave helicopter pilots and other first responders raced to assist and evacuate those on the island.

"Nurses, doctors and other medical professionals have tended to the wounded day and night."

Read his full statement here.

2:30pm - Whakatane mayor Judy Turner says it's been a huge day for the families involved.

"I'd like to express the collective relief and the gratitude on behalf of our community in hearing that six bodies have been recovered," she told reporters.

2:27pm - The Ministry of Health says there are 17 victims still receiving treatment throughout New Zealand - eight of whom are in Middlemore Hospital. 

Four are in Christchurch, three are in Waikato and the remaining two are in Hutt Valley Hospital.

2:24pm - GNS science says there is still a 50 to 60 percent chance of an eruption within the next 24 hours.

Scientists say while there has been no further volcanic activity since Monday, there is a shallow body of magma just below the crater.

GNS says all equipment on the island is still working, but they may change if it becomes covered in ash.

2:20pm - Defence Force senior officer colonel Rian McKinstry says his colleagues did not hesitate to help in the recovery operation.

The risks they faced cannot be downplayed, he says.

Read more here.

2:06pm - Police Commissioner Mike Bush told reporters one of the two remaining bodies was spotted in the water on Tuesday.

"There was an attempt to recover that body - it was unsuccessful.

"To say it [the water] was choppy would be an understatement."

Those involved in the recovery were wearing something similar to what's pictured in this image.
Those involved in the recovery were wearing something similar to what's pictured in this image. Photo credit: Getty

2:01pm - Defence Force senior officer colonel Rian McKinstry says an assessment on whether it was safe to go to the island on Friday morning was "that there was a six percent chance in any three-hour period that the volcano may erupt".

"That met our requirements that it was safe enough," he told reporters.

1:48pm - Police will commence an aerial search of White Island on Friday afternoon, Commissioner Mike Bush told reporters, and will deploy a dive team to search surrounding waters to see if the remaining two people can be identified.

1:43pm - Police Commissioner Mike Bush has ackowledged everyone involved in Friday's recovery operation.

"The operation today [Friday] went to plan," he told reporters. "But it's not over yet.

"Unfortunately, there remains two more people that we need to find - so this operation will continue."

1:30pm - Police Commissioner Mike Bush is about to update media on the White Island recovery operation.

Watch Newshub's breaking news special here.

1:06pm - It is expected that all six recovered bodies will be confirmed to be Australian, said the country's Foreign Minister, Marise Payne. That means it is likely that the two remaining bodies belong to Kiwi tour guides Hayden Marshall-Inman and Tipene Maangi.

12:38pm - Police say they will be addressing media shortly with an update on the recovery operation.

12:37pm - The recovery team are now safe and well on board the HMNZS Wellington, said Deputy Commissioner John Tims.

"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. "

12:30pm - Haumaha said recovery teams  will 'definitely' return to the island to search for the missing two bodies.

12:08pm - Haumaha said people were feeling "aroha and sad" for the two remaining bodies. The six recovered bodies would be taken to Auckland, he said.

11:44am - Families inside the marae were "jubilant" when they heard news the six bodies had been recovered, said Deputy Police Commissioner Wally Haumaha.

11:15am - Six bodies have now been successfully recovered from White Island and are on board the HMNZS Wellington, police say.

11:11am - The level of volcanic tremor on White Island has declined overnight but remains high, Geonet says. There have been no further eruptions since Monday's blast. The volcanic alert level remains at level 2.

10:56am - One body has successfully been recovered from the island and is now on board the HMNZS Wellington, police said.

10:32am - Six bodies have been prepared to be airlifted off White Island, police say. They will be transported by helicopter to the HMNZS Wellington before being brought to land.

10:10am - Police say conditions on White Island remain favourable and the operation is progressing. 
Deputy Commissioner John Tims said the "team is well-advanced with the recovery of the bodies".
The operation is expected to continue for another couple of hours, Tims said.

9:58am - Families are waiting at Te Manuka Tutahi Marae waiting for news on the recovery operation.

WHAKATANE, NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 13: Family and friends of victims of the White Island eruption gather on December 13, 2019 in Whakatane, New Zealand. Authorities will attempt to retrieve an estimated eight victims bodies from White Island, as risks of an additional volcanic activity have been downgraded. Eight people have been confirmed dead following a volcanic eruption at White Island on Monday. (Photo by John Borren/Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty

9:28am - Police say the operation is taking more time than expected due to the protective equipment required by the recovery team.

Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said weather conditions in the area are good and the operation is going to plan. 

The recovery team is currently in the area where most of the bodies are, he said.

9:18am - A Givealittle page set up for tour guide Jake Milbank has raised more than $77,000. The 19-year-old received burns to 80 percent of his body when White Island erupted. He is currently in Auckland's Middlemore Hospital.

8:58am - Families who were on the boat have now entered the nearby Te Manuka Tutahi Marae.

8:57am - Newshub understands the team carrying out the recovery operation is a SAS unit.

8:48am - Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner has spoken with the families at the wharf. Newshub reporter Grace Cocker said it was an emotional time for Turner, who was crying.

Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner.
Whakatane Mayor Judy Turner. Photo credit: AAP

8:28am - The recovery team undertaking the operation to remove bodies on Whakaari / White Island have landed on the island, police have confirmed.

8:07am - A White Island Tours boat containing family members of the victims has arrived back in Whakatane. Earlier on Friday morning, police said a blessing was held at sea with representatives of the families of the victims. 

White Island eruption as it happened: Six bodies recovered, search continuing for remaining two
Photo credit: Newshub.

7:50am - According to the most recent Geonet update, issued Thursday night, the alert level for White Island remains unchanged, at level 2. 

Volcanologist Phil Shane, from Auckland University, told The AM Show on Friday morning it's very hard to know when White Island might erupt.

"For decades it is the sort of place where you could always have an eruption, even though it's quiet most of the time.

"You can't forecast or predict these things. You go there most of the time, never see anything, notice anything of any consequence, but equally it could suddenly happen without warning."

7:10am - The operation has commenced. Police issued a statement saying: 

"This morning a blessing was held at sea with representatives of the families of the victims of the Whakaari / White Island volcanic eruption.

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

7:05am - Newshub reporter Emma Cropper says friends and family at the cordon have been singing waiata and sending their love to the recovery team. Around 50 people have been gathered since sunrise.

6:56am - According to Marine Traffic website, two boats - including the HMNZS Wellington - can be seen near White Island.

White Island eruption as it happened: Six bodies recovered, search continuing for remaining two
Photo credit: Marine Traffic

6:49am - One of the helicopters which took off earlier has now returned to Whakatane airport.

6:35am - According to Newshub reporter Tom McRae, who is in Whakatane, two Seasprite helicopters have taken off from Whakatane airport in the last 10 minutes. However, it is not known if they are the helicopters that will be heading to the island.

6:25am - Newshub understands one of the helicopters has taken off, and the other has started its engines, so the operation could soon be underway. 

6:05am - Two airforce helicopters are on standby, waiting to fly out to White Island.

The helicopters, carrying eight defence force staff with specialised equipment, will fly out to recover the bodies and gather as much evidence as possible in order to identify them.

5:56am - Families of the victims were told details of the recovery operation on Thursday night.

The plan is for authorities to remove the bodies as quickly as possible, taking them to HMNZS Wellington, which is sitting off White Island. The bodies will then be taken to the mainland.

5:50am - Newshub reporter Grace Cocker, who is at the cordon in Whakatane, says nervousness is in the air. But for the first time in days, she says, there is also a sense of hope.

5:40am - Families of the victims have gathered at the cordon in Whakatane in anticipation of the recovery operation. 

5:30am - An emotional karakia has been performed by local iwi.

White Island eruption as it happened: Six bodies recovered, search continuing for remaining two
Photo credit: Newshub.

5:20am - Recovery teams are expected to begin their operation to recover eight bodies on White Island at first light on Friday. Police say they know where six of the bodies are. However, two remain to be located. Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said there would be "very limited" opportunity to search for the two missing bodies.