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New Zealand recovers 6 bodies from volcanic island in high-risk mission

A New Zealand military team recovered six bodies on Friday from the volcanic island that fatally erupted earlier this week, in a high-risk operation watched by dozens of grieving family members waiting on the mainland.

White Island, also known as Whakaari, still at risk of another eruption

A Royal New Zealand Air Force helicopter lands at Whakatane Airport on Friday, after the remains of six people killed in the recent volcanic eruption on White Island were recovered. (John Borren/Getty Images)

A New Zealand military team recovered six bodies on Friday from the volcanic island that fatally erupted earlier this week, in a high-risk operation watched by dozens of grieving family members waiting on the mainland.

Military personnel worked as quickly as possible after using helicopters to land on White Island, which is known in Maori as Whakaari. Experts have said the island still has a 50-60 per cent chance of another eruption over the coming hours.

Six of the eight bodies on the island — which is located about 50 kilometres off the east coast of New Zealand's North Island — were successfully retrieved and taken to a naval patrol vessel, police said.

Recovery teams had good knowledge of the location of those six before landing. The whereabouts of the other two was less certain and it was unclear when those bodies would be recovered.

"It has been an incredibly difficult operation but it has been such a priority," New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Australian Broadcasting Radio Corp. on Friday morning. "We just want to bring loved ones home."

At the end of the day's operation, New Zealand police Commissioner Mike Bush said it went as planned, but was not over. He said the military teams will return and that a dive team has been deployed to search the island's surrounding waters for the remaining bodies as well. 

The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trippers, erupted on Monday, spewing ash and steam over the island. Among the 47 people on the island at the time were Australian, German, Chinese, British and Malaysian tourists.

The official death toll stands at eight as others, whose bodies remain on the island, have been classified as missing until they are formally identified. More than two dozen more people are in hospitals across New Zealand and Australia, most with severe burn injuries.

Authorities have faced growing pressure from families of victims and the wider local community to recover the bodies as soon as possible. New Zealand Police had previously refused to go in due to safety risks.

A blessing was held at sea with the victims' families before the mission was launched.

Forty-seven tourists were exploring the landscape when the volcano erupted Monday. Along with the eight presumed dead, eight more people were killed and dozens were severely burned by the blast of scalding steam and ash.

The risks are still high — the volcano on White Island was "highly volatile" and could erupt again within days, experts have warned.

Relatives walk in the harbour as they await the recovery mission, in Whakatane, New Zealand, on Friday. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

"My concerns are about the weather, the direction of the wind, the sea state, because they all bring risk, they all add complexity," Clement told reporters on Thursday.

"A lot has to go right for this to work," he said.

Police, military and other personnel will monitor the recovery operation from a ship stationed just off the island.

Volcanologists aboard the ship will use electronic equipment on the island to provide the recovery team with real-time information on the volcano's behaviour.

Call for skin  

New Zealand medical staff were working round the clock to treat the injured survivors in hospital burn units.

The enormity of the task was clear when Dr. Peter Watson, a chief medical officer, said at a news conference that extra skin has been ordered from American skin banks. Hospital personnel anticipated needing 120 square metres more of skin for grafting onto the patients, Watson said.

Australian tissue banks have sent two square metres to New Zealand.

"Skin is predominantly used in patients who have the most life-threatening burns, usually if they have more than 50 per cent burn over their body," said Stefan Paniatowski, head of Donor Tissue Bank Victoria.

Relatives of the victims attended a Maori ceremony at Mataatua Marae house in Whakatane on Thursday. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Patients with that amount of burned skin don't have enough of it that's healthy to transplant onto the wounded area, he explained. Additionally, in patients with infections, creating a new wound to transfer their own skin is too risky, Paniatowski said.

White Island, the tip of a mostly undersea volcano that's about 50 kilometres off New Zealand's North Island, has been a popular attraction visited by thousands of tourists each year.

New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency on Thursday lowered White Island's volcanic alert level to 2, noting there's been no further eruption since Monday, when the level had briefly been raised to 4. Its alert level since late Monday had been 3 on a scale where 5 signifies a major eruption.

10 Australians dead or presumed dead

A further eruption in the next day still remains a possibility, the agency said, noting volcanic tremors are rising, and steam and mud were being vented regularly.

Authorities say 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian were visiting the island at the time of the eruption. Many were from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that had left Sydney two days earlier.

WATCH: See eyewitness video of Monday's volcano eruption

See the huge plume of ash and steam after a New Zealand volcanic island erupts 0:59

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said 10 Australians were presumed among the dead. The six bodies recovered from the island Friday were all identified as Australians. 

Twelve of the injured Australians were being medically evacuated to Australian hospitals for further treatment, with one patient from there staying in a New Zealand hospital, he said at a news conference Thursday.

With files from CBC News and The Associated Press

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