New Zealand authorities have found six more bodies after landing on White Island to begin a high-risk operation to recover victims of Monday’s volcanic eruption.
One body has been successfully recovered and is now on board the Royal New Zealand Navy’s HMNZS Wellington.
The operation to recover the remaining bodies continues, but police have said there would be “very limited” opportunity to look for them – eight others were also killed in this weeks explosion.
Authorities have faced growing pressure from families of the victims and the local community to bring back those killed as soon as possible.
New Zealand Police had previously refused to go in due to safety risks, as experts warn the island remains highly volatile.
The country’s geological science agency (GNS Science) said on Thursday that the risk of a further eruption over the next 24 hours was 50% to 60%.
Early on Friday morning, a blessing was held at sea with representatives of the families of those killed.
Just after first light, two helicopters from the New Zealand Defence Force left the township of Whakatane and began the 30m (50km) journey to the island off the country’s eastern coast.
Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement has said the operation is “going to plan” – and that the team is in the area where it is believed the majority of the bodies are.
He said: “The operation is taking more time than expected – this is due to the protective equipment the recovery team is wearing which can be restrictive and heavy, but is necessary.
“Conditions for the operation are good in regard to the weather, sea state and the environment on the island.”
Scientists have warned that gases on the island are so toxic and corrosive that a single inhalation could be fatal.
Mr Clement said he expected the operation to take several hours and added that “the risk has not passed”.
Police, military and other personnel will monitor the recovery operation from a ship stationed just off the island.
Volcanologists on board will use electronic equipment on the island to provide the recovery teams with real-time information on the volcano’s behaviour.
Mr Clement added: “We have spent considerable time making sure we have the right people with the right skills and the right equipment.
“Our thoughts and our prayers and our love will be with them” – (the recovery team).
Specialist teams are due to arrive from Australia, Britain and the United States to treat the injured survivors in hospital burn units.
Dr Peter Watson, a chief medical officer, said during a previous news conference that extra skin had been ordered from US skin banks.
He said they estimated needing an extra 120 sq meters (1,300 sq feet) for grafting onto patients.
Authorities say 47 people from seven nationalities were visiting the island when it erupted – many were from a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that had left Sydney two days earlier.
There were 24 Australians, nine Americans, five New Zealanders, four Germans, two Britons, two Chinese and a Malaysian in the area at the time.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said on Thursday that some injured Australians had been medically evacuated and such flights would continue.
Australia previously said up to 10 such patients would be transferred to hospitals in Victoria and New South Wales states for further treatment.
White Island’s volcanic alert has been lowered to two – there has been no further eruption since Monday, when the level had briefly been raised to four.
Its alert level since late Monday had been three, on a scale where five signifies a major eruption.