New Zealand to send team in risky operation to retrieve bodies after volcanic eruption

Many survivors suffered serious burns, and up to 16 people were feared dead.

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By Phil Helsel and Janis Mackey Frayer

New Zealand police said Thursday they are finalizing plans to recover bodies from an island where a volcanic eruption is feared to have killed up to 16 people.

Police said they will begin recovering bodies at first light Friday from White Island, some 30 miles off the coast of North Island. Previously, conditions had made made it too dangerous to start the recovery process, officials said.

But risks remain. The geological agency GeoNet said that there is a 50 to 60 percent chance of another volcanic eruption within the next 24 hours and that steam and mud bursts continue at the vent area.

"A lot has to go right for this to work," New Zealand Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said at a news conference Thursday night. "We will play things by ear, literally. We will make calls as the morning goes by," he said.

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The missing or dead are believed to be among 47 people, nine from the United States, who were visiting the island when Monday's eruption spewed a hail of burning ash, steam and gas.

There has been no further eruptions since then, but tremors remain very high compared to normal levels, GeoNet said Thursday.

Police said in a statement Thursday morning that two people who were hospitalized had died, bringing the official death toll to eight. Police believe eight of the 16 presumed dead are still on the island.

A team of about eight people, including New Zealand defense forces, police and specialists, will go to the island shortly after first light Friday and "will make every effort to recover all of the bodies from the island" and return them to the mainland, Clement said.

"It's important if we're going to get them back we need to make it and have a go at it," Judy Turner, mayor of Whakatane, told NBC News. "But we're really clear that this isn't at the expense of anybody else's well-being. So it's a very clever strategy from people who specialize in this area who have been flown in to do this."

Family of volcano victim Hayden Marshall-Inman, walks from a meeting with Police Minister Stuart Nash and officials in Whakatane, New Zealand, on Dec. 12, 2019.Mark Baker / AP

Many survivors of Monday's surprise eruption suffered severe burns, prompting New Zealand officials to order skin from the U.S. to help treat their wounds.

Two young brothers, Matthew Hollander and Berend "Ben" Hollander, died in the hospital, officials at Knox Grammar School in Australia, where the boys were students, said. Their parents are unaccounted for, the school said.

Twenty-one patients were in burn units across the country, but six patients from Australia were expected to be flown to their home country in the next 24 hours, officials said.