A follow-up mission to New Zealand’s White Island in a bid to retrieve the remains of those still missing after Monday’s volcanic eruption has been unsuccessful.
Defence force operatives returned to Whakaari on Sunday, two days after their successful high-stakes trip to the active volcano brought back six bodies.
Police understand eight people were killed on the island, and spent Saturday debriefing the operation and searching nearby waters for the last two bodies.
Mission command firmly believe a seventh body is in the water, and are increasingly convinced the eighth could be too.
However, both Saturday’s water-based search and Sunday’s landing failed to turn up the remains.
“It’s been a blow for police,” New Zealand police deputy commissioner Mike Clement said.
“Everyone went out there desperate to find the bodies … it’s been tough going for everybody.
“We understand completely how frustrating it is for loved ones who want the bodies back.”
As of Sunday afternoon NZDT, divers were back in the water around the Bay of Plenty island, hoping they could reach a breakthrough.
The situation on the volcano, New Zealand’s most active, remains volatile and dangerous.
The latest update from geological monitoring agency GeoNet left the alert level at two and suggested there was a 30-45% chance of an eruption in the next day.
National operations commander and New Zealand police deputy commissioner John Tims said Sunday morning’s visit was quicker than Friday’s four-hour salvage effort.
“This morning at 8am, three helicopters – two commercial helicopters and the Police Eagle helicopter – left for Whakaari / White Island with eight police staff on board,” he said.
“Those staff covered a search area where our best information suggested a body could still remain. Unfortunately, we did not locate a body this morning.”
Despite returning back to the mainland empty-handed, police underlined their commitment to the job.
“We have always anticipated recovering all bodies from the island, and we remain deeply committed to that goal, to allow families some closure,” Tims said.
In total, 47 people were on White Island during Monday’s deadly blast.
The New Zealand Health Ministry confirmed the death toll as of Sunday morning was 15 after a patient in Waikato hospital died from their injuries on Saturday night.
There are 14 patients being cared for in four burns units around New Zealand – Middlemore, Hutt Valley, Waikato, and Christchurch – with 10 listed as critical.
In the days after the blast, 13 Australians have been repatriated to hospitals back home. Nine Australians are confirmed dead and a further two are presumed to have died.
On Sunday morning at least 10 Australians remained in critical condition.
Two NSW residents who arrived overnight at Sydney’s Royal North Shore hospital were among seven across the city’s hospitals listed as critical.
Three NSW victims were in stable conditions at local hospitals later on Sunday, while the families of two other NSW victims have requested privacy about their status.
Three patients evacuated from New Zealand to the Alfred hospital in Melbourne were also critically ill.
Some 47 people, including 24 Australian citizens and four permanent residents, were on the island when the volcano erupted on Monday.
Brisbane woman Julie Richards and her university student daughter Jessica, and Coffs Harbour couple Richard Elzer and Karla Matthews were all believed to have perished when heat, ash and toxic gases enveloped the island following the eruption.
Melbourne woman Krystal Browitt, 21, was the first victim to be identified by police from the six people whose bodies were recovered from the island on Friday.
Browitt was enrolled in La Trobe University’s bachelor of veterinary nursing degree run via Melbourne Polytechnic, the institution confirmed on Saturday.
“Our thoughts are with her immediate family and we also extend our heartfelt condolences to all of Krystal’s family and friends at this very difficult time,” the university said in a statement on Saturday after NZ police confirmed her death.
Sydney’s Hollander brothers Berend, 16, and Matthew, 13, and Coffs Harbour man Jason Griffiths died in hospital from their burns.
Fears were held for Berend and Matthew’s parents Martin and Barbara Hollander, while Sydney woman Kristine Langford and her daughter Winona, 17, were missing.
Extended family have indicated the Langfords’ son Jesse, 19, survived. He is likely among those being treated in Sydney.
NZ police on Sunday morning confirmed the deaths of Adelaide man Gavin Dallow, 53; Adelaide schoolgirl Zoe Hosking, 15; Sydney man Anthony Langford, 51; and New Zealand man Tipene Maangi, 24.