Key Points:

  • Six people now confirmed dead, grim task of autopsies and formal identification continues today
  • Eight people remain missing on the island, presumed dead
  • 30 are in hospital - 24 are in four regional burns units and the other six will be transferred as soon as possible
  • Three patients have been discharged
  • 47 people were on or near the island when the volcano erupted on Monday afternoon - 24 were Australian, nine were from the United States, five were Kiwis, four were Germans, two were Chinese and one was Malaysian

Warning: Distressing content

A helicopter pilot who rushed to Whakaari/White Island after Monday's deadly eruption has revealed the "horrific" scenes he encountered when he landed to rescue critically injured patients.

Mark Law, of Frontier Air, told the UK's Guardian newspaper: "We found people dead, dying and alive but in various states of unconsciousness.

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"I descended down into the crater, down to 200ft," Law said. "We could see people very easily from the air. They were lying down or spread eagled. We were looking for somewhere we could land that would not be a big problem. The dust is very acidic and that's not good for the engines.

"We both landed in the centre of the island where we felt it was OK. It was ashing but we could deal with it. We went to assess everyone. We were moving around tending to people who were in real distress.

"We wanted to reassure them. We found people dead, dying and alive but in various states of unconsciousness.

"It felt like running through talcum powder.

"It was very hard to breathe and without a gas mask we were gasping for air, but … adrenaline takes over. I'd rather break a few rules and save some lives than sit here wondering what we could have done."

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Law revealed that he decided to head to the scene of the disaster after he heard that emergency services would not land, the Guardian reports.

"We heard they were not coming to the island. It's their decision. I wasn't involved in that. We just took care of our own business."

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Law was left shaken by the severity of the patients' injuries.

"The burns were horrific," he said. "A lot of the people could not talk. It was pretty quiet. The only real words were things like, 'help'. They were covered in ash and dust. We were picking them up and skin was coming off in our hands."

He told the Guardian that he would fly back to the island to assist in body retrieval.

"It's a bureaucracy," he said. "I would get the bodies now if I was allowed."

Formal identification

Autopsies and formal identification for the six Whakaari/White Island eruption victims will begin today as police try to identify the dead and injured.

Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said police were trying to return bodies to grieving families but identification was a complex process.

"The nature of the injuries that people have suffered is severe and means identifying them is a complex matter," he said.

"We are working through the process to identify them as quickly as possible, to return those who have died to their loved ones."

It is understood part of that process will include police gathering DNA from the cabins of missing passengers on the Ovation of the Seas, which was held at Tauranga overnight. The cruise ship departed this morning.

Six of the 47 people on the island were confirmed dead and 30 injured after Monday's eruption sent an ash plume 4000m into the air, visible from as far away as 50km.

Eight others remain on the island and are presumed dead but a recovery operation will not begin until it is deemed safe for teams to go there.

"We understand people's desire to recover their loved ones and we are working around the clock to get on to the island so we can recover them as soon as possible," said Tims.

"Based on the effects of the eruption on the bodies, this recovery will need to be handled with expert skill and care."