WELLINGTON (REUTERS, AFP) - New Zealand divers searched contaminated waters near the volcanic White Island on Saturday (Dec 14) in an attempt to retrieve two remaining bodies, following a fatal eruption earlier this week, said police.
Waters around the island were contaminated by the massive eruption of rocks, lava and chemicals on Monday, reducing visibility.
The death toll from the eruption stands at 14, but may rise with many victims in intensive care with severe burns.
Police deputy commissioner John Tims said the divers faced "unique and challenging conditions" as they searched waters "with between zero and two metres visibility".
"Divers have reported seeing a number of dead fish and eels washed ashore and floating in the water," police said in a statement. "Each time they surface, the divers are decontaminated using fresh water."
The remains of six people were successfully recovered on Friday after a military team in gas masks and hazmat suits landed on the uninhabited island and removed the bodies in a high-risk operation.
Police said they could not retrieve the remains of two more people, but spotted at least one body in the waters not too far from the island shoreline.
Nine police dive squad members resumed their search at 7am local time (1800 GMT Friday) and the operation would be boosted by a navy dive team later in the day.
The police said in an earlier statement they will not return to the island for a land-based search on Saturday, but will return in the future.
"Today's planning will allow us to return to the island to conduct further land-based searches for the remaining deceased, as the environment on and around the island allows," police said.
"There will be no return to the island today," it added in the statement.
In a statement released on Saturday, geological agency GeoNet said there was a 35 per cent to 50 per cent risk of an eruption that would impact beyond the volcano's vent area in the next 24 hours, a decrease from the 50 per cent and 60 per cent risk announced on Friday.
The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trippers, erupted on Monday, spewing ash, steam and gases over the island.
Among the 47 people on the island at the time were Australian, US, German, Chinese, British and Malaysian tourists.
The death toll rose to 15 on Saturday as one more person died in the hospital. The toll may rise further as more than two dozen people are in hospitals across New Zealand and Australia, most with severe burn injuries.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced on Saturday that a minute's silence will be observed at 2.11pm local time (0111GMT) on December 16, exactly one week from when the fatal eruption occurred.
"Wherever you are in New Zealand, or around the world, this is a moment we can stand alongside those who have lost loved ones in this extraordinary tragedy," Ms Ardern said in the statement.
The authorities have faced growing pressure in recent days from families of some victims to recover the bodies as soon as possible.
There has also been criticism that tourists were allowed on the island at all, given the risks of an active volcano.
New Zealand police on Saturday officially identified the first victim as 21-year-old Australian woman Krystal Browitt. Browitt was on a family holiday to celebrate her birthday in New Zealand when she joined her older sister Stephanie and father Paul on a visit to the island.
Her mother Marie stayed behind on the boat, and has since been by the bedside of her daughter and husband who were both originally in a coma in a hospital burns unit following the eruption, according to a GoFundMe page set up for the family.
"It has been quite difficult," a friend of the Browitt daughters, Ms Tahlia West told AFP.
Ms West remembered Krystal as "just a beautiful girl, very caring, very gentle." All 13 Australians hospitalised have been repatriated. The current condition of Stephanie and Paul is unknown.