Aussie ‘buried or lost’ in NZ volcano
At least one Australian remains buried or lost off the waters of the White Island volcano after a high risk recovery operation brought back six of eight missing people.
A team of eight New Zealand Defence Force specialists went on to the volatile volcano at around 8am today wearing orange hazmat suits and breathing apparatus to recover the bodies.
Of the six bodies returned to the mainland, one of those has been confirmed as a New Zealand tour guide.
This means at the very least, one Australian - possibly two - remain buried or lost at sea after Monday's eruption.
A body was spotted by aerial reconnaissance on Tuesday and police divers are continuing to search the waters off the volcano.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush said: "We do believe that at least one of them is in the water and the other one we are unsure, so that only leaves two possibilities … they're on the island … or they too are in the water."
But there was confusion today over the identity of the six recovered bodies with Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne stating that all six are Australian.
"We have been advised by the authorities that is expected to be the case," she said.
However, at a later press conference New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said emphatically: "that will not be the case", leaving the possibility that at least one Australian remains missing.
The families of missing tour guides Tipene Maangi and Hayden Marshall-Inman headed out to the volcano by boat before dawn for a traditional service.
They were accompanied by members of three Australian families and the Australian High Commissioner Patricia Forsythe.
Australians missing on the island were mother Julie Richards, 47, and daughter Jessica, 20, from Brisbane; Zoe Hosking, 15, from Adelaide; Krystal Browitt, 21, from Melbourne and Richard Elzer, 32, and Karla Mathews, 32, from Coffs Harbour.
The Australian families did not identify who they had come to bring home but guide Tipene Maangi's grandfather Ruku Tawahiorangi said: "I'm hoping that he's one of the six".
Police Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha said the families were "just absolutely ecstatic" the recovery process had gone so well.
"I don't know if you heard the sighs of relief, the joy, the clapping and just the appreciation that this phase of the operation has been successful in terms of returning the six bodies off the island," he said.
"They have got their loved ones coming home. And to be able to take them back to Australia … if that was your son or your daughter or my son or my daughter, what would you be thinking?"
The specialist military team of six men and two women was described as extremely courageous given the conditions of an imminent shallow magma eruption and toxic gas that since Monday had built up to where experts said one breath could be fatal or at least permanently damage respiratory systems.
After the six bodies were recovered they were flown into the airport at Whakatane where the families were able to spend time with the coffins - not knowing who was inside.
Tonight the six were choppered to Auckland for the coroner to begin a formal identification process.
BLESSINGS PERFORMED BEFORE RISKY OPERATION
Before dawn, a White Islands tour boat slipped away from Whakatane wharf to return to White Island for the first time since the tragedy that unfolded from Monday afternoon.
On board were 31 people including police and local Maori elders but significantly Australian families who had arrived here to see the volcano that killed their loved ones.
They were accompanied by Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand Patricia Forsythe who sat with them at the bow of the vessel.
Some time later, a traditional Maori blessing was given to beg the island to give up its dead and remain peaceful while a body retrieval was under way.
Those on board have told News Corp Australia, the scene on deck was emotional to the extreme as a karakia and waiata incantation and song of mourning was wailed.
It didn't matter that overhead military helicopters ran relay to deliver teams or equipment to the atoll and a navy warship anchored nearby, the seas were serene and the moment "magical".
On board too was White Tours operator Paul Quinn who some blame for allowing visitors to the island despite increased warning it had become more unstable.
He said the voyage of return was emotional for him too but critically important for "Australian guests" on board.
On shore, Deputy Police Commissioner Mike Clement said the vessel was about 1km from the shore but it was an important side mission to the major operation, particularly for the Australians.
"It was very emotional as you could expect, I think people with a great sense of fulfilment were able to grieve close to their Whānau (family) and for those who don't come from this place they saw something of the New Zealand culture and understand the way that we are and I think that was a fantastic opportunity for everybody. It was deeply emotional for everybody including police staff who were on the boat."
He said the volcano was behaving and weather conditions were good.
"Everybody has a rich appreciation of the bravery at work here," he said.
Mark Inman, brother of local tour operator Hayden Marshall-Inman whose body is on the island, described the blessing and scene at sea as magical.
This was particularly the case as a fog rolled in.
"It's all we ask, it was beautiful," he said.
"It was a very powerful experience for families on board. It gave all the families out there on the boat some closure."
The boat returned to shore about 8am.
On the shoreline of coastal village Whakatane from where the tour boats leave, more than a 100 people - mostly from the local Maori tribe - sang and played guitars to will the body recovery mission to success.
The scene built throughout the morning. There was a cheer when it was confirmed the specialist recovery team had made it ashore of the volcanic island.
Elder Teina Boasa-Dean said: "Today is really a ritual stage in the process of grieving and sending love and thoughts of care to the families."
"It is also an opportunity to provide some healing to the local iwi (community)."