New Zealand volcano eruption: Mission to retrieve bodies of victims will begin on Friday, officials say

Sean Morrison
A huge cloud of ash billows into the sky above White Island following the eruption on Monday: AP

A recovery mission to retrieve the bodies of those killed when a volcano erupted on a small island in New Zealand will begin on Friday, officials have confirmed.

New Zealand Police revealed they are in the final stages of planning ahead of the operation, which has been delayed amid fears conditions on White Island were not yet safe.

The bodies of eight victims from the disaster are believed to remain on the ash-covered island following the deadly volcanic explosion on Monday.

There were 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption. Some 24 of those were from Australia, nine from the US, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and Britain and one from Malaysia.

The volcano on White Island off the coast of Whakatane, New Zealand. (AP)

Eight people were confirmed killed and dozens were severely burned in the blast of steam and ash. New Zealand medical staff were working around 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 staff anticipated needing an extra 120 square meters (1,300 square feet) of skin for grafting onto the patients, Dr Watson said.

New Zealand's GeoNet seismic monitoring agency on Thursday lowered White Island's volcanic alert level to two. Its alert level since late Monday had been three on a scale where five signifies a major eruption.

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.

Many of the injured are being treated for severe burns, and medical officials are importing some 1.2 million square cm of skin. The amount of skin needed equates to about 60 donors.

In New Zealand, only five to 10 people donate skin each year, the New Zealand Herald reported.

Teams of surgeons in several burns units around the country were working around the clock.

"What we faced on Monday was beyond comprehension," Dr Heike Hundemer, clinical leader at Whakatane hospital, told at a media conference on Wednesday.

"I've worked in major centres in Germany as well as in New Zealand. I've never seen this number of critically injured patients coming into an emergency department in a short space of time," said Dr Hundemer.

"We used every single bedspace, every single resource we had to care for those people. Those patients we treated and comforted will forever stay in our minds."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said medical teams had transported five Australians back home for treatment.

Another seven Australians would be evacuated over the next 24 hours and one citizen would remain in a hospital in New Zealand.

Mr Morrison said 11 Australians had died, a figure that is believed to be drawn from the 16 people officially listed dead and missing by New Zealand. Further, he said two permanent residents of Australia had died, one was missing and a fourth was hospitalised.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said there will be an inquiry into the tragedy, which will also look more broadly at issues including access to volcanic sites across New Zealand.

Daily tours bring more than 10,000 visitors to privately owned White Island every year, marketed as "the world's most accessible active marine volcano".

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