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New Zealand volcano: Police recover six bodies

By Darryl Coote & Danielle Haynes
New Zealand volcano: Police recover six bodies
New Zealand officials plan to return to the island to recover two more bodies. Photo courtesy of Auckland Rescue Helicopter Trust/EPA-EFE

Dec. 12 (UPI) -- Emergency officials on Friday recovered the bodies of six people killed in a volcanic explosion on New Zealand's White Island.

The National Emergency Management Agency said they believe there are eight bodies on the island, also known as Whakaari. Deputy police commissioner Wally Haumaha said police planned to return to the island for the remaining two bodies, though declined to offer a timeline.

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Officials transported the six bodies on the HMNZS Wellington to Aukland to be claimed by their families.

The New Zealand Ministry of Health said 17 people injured in the volcanic blast remained in the hospital, 13 in critical condition.

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Officials carried out the recovery operation Friday despite worsening conditions on the volcanic island and an increasing probability of a second eruption.

Deputy police commissioner John Tims said in a statement read by Civil Defense Emergency Management Director Sarah Stuart Black during a press conference that he was briefing families on the plan Thursday afternoon.

GNS volcanologists Graham Leonard said the status of the island was uncertain, volatile and worsening with the probability of a second eruption within the next 24 hours increasing from 40 percent to 60 percent for Wednesday to 50 percent to 60 percent on Thursday amid an increasing tremor.

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"Today is less safe than yesterday and the day before," he said, adding that GNS declined to advise police on the mission. "The police make their own decisions."

Black said she stands by the police and it was their decision to carry out the mission despite the risks involved.

"This is a police decision," she said. "They will take account of the risk assessment and taken all of those risk factors and informing their decision but at the end of the day it will be their decision and I will support them."

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There are more than 20 government and support agencies providing assistance to the response, Black said, and each is "100 percent committed to the recovery and return of the bodies of those still on the island."

The death toll increased after two U.S.-born brothers died from injuries sustained during the Monday eruption.

Matthew Hollander, 13, and Ben Hollander, 16, died in the hospital. Their parents, Martin and Barbara, were missing, according to the boys' Knox Grammar School in Australia where they moved to six years ago from Chicago.

Forty-seven tourists, including nine Americans, were on the island Monday when it erupted.

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