Rescuers will return to White Island’s ashen wasteland on Saturday to recover the last two bodies still missing after Monday’s volcanic eruption.
The remains of six victims retrieved from the barren volcano on Friday will also undergo a formal identification process as their bodies were unable to be recognised by family members.
The four-hour operation on Friday involved members of the NZ military bomb squad and medicos who braved lethal gases, steaming vents and potential eruptions.
“It’s not over yet,” Police Commissioner Mike Bush declared afterwards, indicating that the recovery mission would continue, conditions permitting.
Divers will return to the sea off New Zealand’s most active volcano to search for one body which is believed to be in the water.
A second body which remains unaccounted for could be either in the water or land.
Dressed in yellow protective suits and fitted with closed-circuit breathing systems with enough oxygen for four hours, the team of eight braved extreme conditions on Friday as they scoured the volatile crater.
Breathing the toxic gases could be deadly and rescuers also had to contend with extreme heat inside their protective suits as they moved slowly across the hellish landscape, working in pairs to retrieve the bodies from under the ash.
The high-risk mission took place despite warnings of a 50 to 60 per cent chance of a further eruption.
— NZ Defence Force (@NZDefenceForce) December 13, 2019
The bodies were flown by helicopter to the nearby HMNZS Wellington before they were taken to mainland Whakatane where families were given the opportunity to grieve with the coffins at the airport.
Although it was not possible to visually identify the victims, deputy Labour leader Kelvin Davis said the chance to sit with the dead brought a sense of calmness and peace amid the over-riding grief.
“We had karakia (prayer), obviously, a brief mihi (tribute), and then there was the time for the whanau (extended family) just to be sitting among the coffins and just spending time there with their loved ones,” said Mr Davis.
“Obviously they didn’t know which was their particular whanau member.
“But it was just an opportunity…regardless of whether we’re from Australia or New Zealand or wherever, at that moment we’re one whanau and will mourn everybody as if they’re our own.”
The bodies were flown from Whakatane to Auckland where they were met at the airport by a row of hearses which drove in a solemn procession to the city’s mortuary for a formal process of identification.
But there was confusion and consternation early in the day when Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne declared all six bodies were Australians.
Locals took this to mean Kiwi tour guides Tipene Maangi and Hayden Inman could not be found and had been left behind.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern forcefully dismissed Senator Payne’s suggestion all the bodies will be confirmed as Australian.
“That simply will not be the case … that won’t simply be accurate,” she said.
“Now there’s a process to work through to make sure there’s certainty that the families absolutely deserve.”
NZ Police Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha said the news of the retrieval on Friday was met with “sighs of relief, joy and clapping” by the families who gathered together while the mission took place.
“They’ve got their loved ones coming home,” he said.
Six of the eight bodies that were on the island were Australian: Brisbane woman Julie Richards and her university student daughter Jessica; Coffs Harbour couple Richard Elzer and Karla Matthews; Melbourne woman Krystal Browitt and Adelaide schoolgirl Zoe Hosking, 15.
They are among up to 15 Australians killed by the heat, ash and toxic gases that enveloped the island following the eruption.
Sydney’s Hollander brothers Berend, 16, and Matthew, 13, and Coffs Harbour man Jason Griffiths died in hospital from their horrific burns, while Adelaide man Gavin Dallow, 53, was declared dead on Wednesday.
Fears are held for Berend and Matthew’s parents Martin and Barbara Hollander, while Sydney couple Anthony and Kristine Langford and their daughter Winona, 17, are missing.
Extended family have indicated the Langfords’ son Jesse, 19, survived.
He is likely to be one of the 13 Australian survivors who have been flown home to be treated in burns units in Sydney and Melbourne, while one will remain in hospital in New Zealand.