Eight members of New Zealand’s military flew on Friday to White Island, a popular tourist destination, where they recovered the bodies of six victims killed in Monday’s eruption of the island’s volcano. But the team ended its ground search for two other bodies in the afternoon.
Col. Rian McKinstry, who was part of the command leading the Friday operation, said the team on the ground had to end its search because their air supplies were dwindling. But officials said the search would be continued from the air and the water, since one of the two victims whose bodies were not recovered was believed to have been swept into the bay. A dive team will be redeployed on Saturday to search for that body.
The recovery team had gone to the island, also known by its Maori name, Whakaari, at daybreak Friday and spent four hours on the ground searching for the bodies.
John Tims, the deputy police commissioner for national operations, said the six bodies that were recovered were airlifted by helicopter back to the recovery team’s vessel, the HMNZS Wellington, moored in the Bay of Plenty, before being flown later to Auckland to be formally identified.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she hoped the recovery of the bodies would bring some closure.
“Today was all about returning them to their loved ones,” Ms. Ardern told reporters in Whakatane, a nearby mainland coastal town.
“We know that reunion won’t ease that sense of loss, of suffering, because I don’t think anything can, but we felt an enormous sense of duty as New Zealanders to bring their loved ones home,” she said.
Deputy Commissioner Wally Haumaha reported that relatives of the dead reacted with relief when they heard the bodies had been secured.
“Like any family would welcome home a loved one, these people have been waiting patiently and just to hear the process was going well, they were ecstatic,” he told reporters.
At least eight additional people were killed in the eruption, with the total death toll from the disaster believed to be at least 16. Of those who were able to escape the island, at least 26 remained hospitalized on Thursday with burns over at least 30 percent of their bodies.
The operation to retrieve the remaining victims had been delayed for days because of the volatility of the volcano, which could erupt again at any minute.
“The combined interpretation of all our data is that magma is degassing at shallow depths and the situation remains highly volatile,” said Craig Miller, a volcanologist with GeoNet, the agency that monitors geological activity in New Zealand.
Mike Clement, also a deputy police commissioner for national operations, told reporters earlier Friday as the operation was underway that progress was “taking more time than expected” because of the recovery team’s heavy protective equipment, which was slowing their mobility.
The risk of another eruption during the recovery effort was significant, and that was the biggest reason the operation had been delayed since Monday. Volcanologists working with the police and rescue operations have said all week that the possibility of White Island erupting again was about 40 percent to 60 percent. On Thursday, Nico Fournier, a volcanologist in New Zealand, told reporters that White Island hadn’t been this volatile since 2016.
The rescuers wore protective gear to shield them from toxic volcanic gases, as well as the ash underfoot. Mr. Fournier said anyone traversing the island would have difficulty breathing, seeing and walking. On normal tour days, visitors are given hard hats and gas masks when they journey to the island.
Health officials found themselves suddenly desperate for one item in particular to help the victims: skin grafts.
Peter Watson, the chief medical officer for the district health service in Auckland, told reporters that while New Zealand has a stock of skin, it urgently needs more — about 1.2 million square centimeters — roughly 1,292 square feet.
“The supplies are coming from the United States and the order has been placed,” he said.
Doctors said some of the injured have burns over 90 percent to 95 percent of their bodies. The patients have been sent to burn units in other hospitals around the New Zealand, and several Australian victims have been evacuated to hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne.
A patient with 40 percent burns would require at least eight hours of surgery. As a consequence, all those burn units have been operating, sometimes three to four procedures at a time, since the Monday disaster.
“Monday is beyond anything we would have anticipated,” said Dr. Heike Hundemer, clinical leader of Whakatane Hospital. “We used every single bed space, every resource we had to care for those people.”
And many on the hospital’s staff were working to save people they knew, she said. “Our staff are deeply impacted by what we saw. We are a tight team, in a small community. Some of those people who have lost their lives were known to our staff.”
White Island is an enormous tourist draw in New Zealand, having appeared in “Lord of the Rings” and other films, and its volcano is the country’s most active. Still, how such a calamity was allowed to happen is the biggest question everyone has been asking. The volcano had been exhibiting high levels of activity in recent weeks.
Police and workplace safety officials have started investigations into the deaths of the tourists and into at least two employees from a tour operating agency that brought visitors to the island. Questions have persisted over what people knew and when, but Geoff Hopkins, a 50-year-old pastor who was on the island 30 minutes before the volcano erupted, said everyone was well aware of the risks they were taking by walking onto an active volcano.
GeoNet, the geological monitoring agency, had reported increased activity at the volcano for several weeks before the eruption, raising the warning level to 2 out of 5, but maintaining that the island was still safe for visitors.
The tours have been running for decades, under a deal between a handful of operators and the family that has passed down ownership of the land through several generations.
The tours fall under the jurisdiction of the 2016 Health and Safety at Work (Adventure Activities) Regulations, which require a safety audit for companies that “deliberately expose the participant to a serious risk to his or her health and safety that must be managed by the provider of the activity.”
White Island Tours, which was responsible for bringing most or all of the people to the island on Monday, is a registered and approved tour provider. A little over a year ago, it won an award as one of the safest places in New Zealand to work.