Emotional families watch on as bodies of six Australians retrieved from White Island


Emotional families of those killed in the New Zealand volcano disaster have expressed their relief and gratitude after police confirmed the secure return of six bodies from White Island.

Defence Force personnel, believed to be SAS soldiers, airlifted six bodies off the active volcano and onto the HMNZS Wellington, stationed nearby, on Friday morning, completing the headline task for the high-risk mission.

There were eight bodies believed to be on the island, also known as Whakaari, and the six retrieved were believed to be Australians, foreign minister Marise Payne said. Of 28 Australians caught up in the tragedy, 11 deaths have been confirmed.

The bodies are believed to be those of:

Families of victims embrace as they arrive back to the Whakatane wharf following a blessing at sea near White Island on Friday. Source: AP
Families carry balloons ahead of the blessing. Source: AP

White Island tour guides Hayden Marshall-Inman and Tipeni Maangi are believed to be the two bodies remaining on the island, Stuff reported.

Family members take part in Maori blessing off White Island

Family representatives travelled into the Bay of Plenty and around one kilometre off the volcano, ahead of the mission to retrieve the bodies.

There, they conducted a Maori spiritual ceremony and allowed family members to be close to the site where their loved ones lost their lives.

Back on shore, they then gathered with broader family and friends at the community meeting house to wait.

NZ Police Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha said families were "deeply appreciative" upon hearing the news.

"These people have been waiting patiently. To hear the news that this recovery mission had gone really well, they're absolutely ecstatic," he said.

"The sighs of relief. The joy. The clapping.

"As you can imagine. They've got their loved ones coming home.

"To be able to take them back to Australia. If that was your son or your daughter, like it was my son or my daughter, what would we be thinking?"

The six bodies will make their way to the mainland, and onto the coroner in Auckland for a disaster victim identification process. 

A military helicopter departs Whakatane airport during the recovery. Source: AAP

Two bodies on White Island yet to be located

Police have not yet been able to locate the other two bodies.

The high-risk mission to White Island on Friday morning took place despite raised seismic activity in the wake of Monday's blast.

GNS Science warned there was a 50 to 60 per cent chance of a further eruption, posing a major threat to the operation and the lives of the team on Whakaari.

An update issued while they were on the island said the "level of volcanic tremor has dropped but remains very high compared to pre-eruption levels".

Instead of opting for a plan to spend as little time on the island as possible, NZ Defence Force members spent hours on the surface of the active volcano.

"The equipment that the operators are wearing on the island is significant in terms of its weight and how it restricts movement," New Zealand police deputy commissioner Mike Clement said.

Mr Clement paid tribute to the fortitude of those conducting the mission.

"Everybody has a rich appreciation of the absolute bravery of everyone involved, particularly those going onto the island," he said.

Two bodies are yet to have been found on the island. Source: AAP

Eleven survivors moved to Australian hospitals

Some 47 people, including 24 Australian citizens, were on the island when the volcano erupted on Monday. Senator Payne later clarified that four permanent Australian residents had been caught up in Monday's eruption, alongside 24 citizens, bringing the total Australians to 28.

Eight Australians are confirmed dead, two are presumed to have died and 13 are in hospital fighting for their lives with severe burns.

Senator Payne said 11 Australian survivors had been flown by military and civilian aircraft to hospitals in Melbourne and Sydney.

In the days ahead, Australia would have to contend with the return of bodies.

Australian Federal Police have gone to New Zealand to aid the formal identification of victims, something the minister said would be an agonising process for grieving families.

Royal Caribbean faces action over victims

Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd's potential liability for the deadly excursion to island could hinge on whether the eruption was an unforeseeable "act of God", according to maritime lawyers.

While no lawsuits have yet been filed, legal experts said they expected action in US courts by injured passengers and families of those who died.

Royal Caribbean ticket terms posted on its website spell out that the company is not liable for any injury, death or loss of property caused by an act of God, as well as war, terrorism or other events beyond the company's control.

Royal Caribbean will likely argue the disaster was an extraordinary event no one could reasonably foresee, said Robert Kritzman, an attorney with Baker Donelson in Miami.

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