'Challenging conditions' in search for bodies

The  recovery operation under way at Whakaari/White Island yesterday. Photo by New Zealand...
The recovery operation under way at Whakaari/White Island yesterday. Photo by New Zealand Defence Force via Getty Images
Police divers are continuing to search the waters around Whakaari / White Island for the last two missing victims of Monday's eruption.

Police said in an update this afternoon they faced “unique and challenging conditions”. 

A team of nine from the national dive squad resumed their search at 7am today for a body seen in the water the eruption. There has been no sight of the second remaining body.

"The water around the island is contaminated, requiring the divers to take extra precautions to ensure their safety, including using specialist protective equipment," police said in a statement.

"Divers have reported seeing a number of dead fish and eels washed ashore and floating in the water."

"Each time they surface, the divers are decontaminated using fresh water."

Conditions in the water today "are not optimal, with between zero and two metres visibility depending on location", police said.

The dive operation will be boosted this afternoon with personnel from the Navy dive team.

Meanwhile, police have formally identified Krystal Eve Browitt, 21, from Australia as one of the dead from the Whakaari White Island eruption.

Krystal Browitt was in New Zealand to celebrate her 21st birthday. Photo: Supplied
Krystal Browitt was in New Zealand to celebrate her 21st birthday. Photo: Supplied
Six bodies were recovered from the volcano yesterday.

The risky work to return the dead to their loved ones began at first light yesterday, almost four days after the eruption which took the lives of 16 people and injured 30, most critically.

Police said this morning the police dive squad and Navy divers would resume their search for a body seen in the water on Tuesday.

They also hoped to conduct land searches when possible but said there would be no return to the island today.

"Following the successful recovery of six bodies from the island yesterday, Police and partner agencies are today analysing all information and assessing possible next steps.

"Today's planning will allow us to return to the island to conduct further land-based searches for the remaining deceased, as the environment on and around the island allows."

Eight Defence Force members wearing full protective clothing, including closed-circuit breathing apparatus to guard against the toxic gases, landed on White Island, where they retrieved six of the eight bodies left behind after Monday's deadly eruption.

The bodies were then flown to the Navy ship HMNZS Wellington, which was anchored off the island, then airlifted to Whakatane Airport.

There, families had time to sit among their loved ones' coffins - despite not knowing which was their particular family member, deputy Labour leader Kelvin Davis said.

There was a sense of calmness, peace and overriding grief during that time, Davis said.

"It was just an opportunity - as they said - regardless of whether we're from Australia or New Zealand or wherever, at that moment we're one whanau and we'll mourn everybody as if they are our own."

The bodies were then flown by helicopter to Whenuapai airbase, where they were met by the solemn sight of a row of hearses lined up on the tarmac. The bodies were taken to Auckland Hospital, where post mortems are taking place.

Late yesterday afternoon an aerial search also began for the two remaining bodies. Police divers were also deployed.

Conditions permitting, the divers, with the support of the New Zealand Defence Force, would return today, Police Commissioner Mike Bush said.

"It's not over yet."

Yesterday's effort began with a blessing held at sea with iwi and representatives of those who died.

Family members then returned to the mainland as the daring retrieval operation began.

It involved eight people on the ground and dozens more behind the scenes and was, Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said, not without risk.

The NZDF staff on the island were six men and two women from the explosive ordnance disposal squad, Defence Force Colonel Rian McKinstry said.

Despite the protective clothing they were not completely protected from another eruption, with the risk of another eruption within 24 hours still judged to be 50/50 by GeoNet scientists.

There was a 6 percent chance in any three hour period that the volcano would erupt, McKinstry said.

"We had a good quality mapping, that we had briefed our teams on, so they knew the general area of where those persons lay."

It was a unique task for the team, who were also backed up by a second team on standby, but "well within their level of capability".

"As far as their demeanour is concerned, because of the bomb disposal nature of the trade, you can take it they are very level-headed individuals."

However, they would have "experienced things today" that required a debrief, he said.

"I am incredibly proud of these individuals."

Bringing back the bodies was the right thing to do, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

"We know that reunification won't ease that sense of loss or grief. I don't think anything can.

"We felt an enormous duty of care as New Zealanders to bring them back."

Mark Inman, whose brother - White Island Tours guide Hayden Marshall-Inman  - was believed among the bodies on the island, yesterday spoke of his relief at the retrieval efforts.

Marshall-Inman is believed to have died after he went back to help others after Monday's eruption, which occurred as tourists, mostly from Australia, were visiting the island.

"It's going to allow us to grieve and send our loved ones off in the manner they deserve."

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