WHITE ISLAND ERUPTION - AT A GLANCE
* Six people confirmed dead, autopsies and formal identification continues today
* Nine missing or presumed dead, with eight thought to be on island
* 30 in hospital - 8 in Christchurch, 7 in Middlemore Hospital, 6 in Waikato, 4 in Hutt Valley, 2 in Auckland City, 2 in Tauranga Base Hospital and 1 in Wellington
* One injured Australian due to fly from Wellington to an Australian hospital overnight
* More Australian patients expected to be flown to hospitals across Tasman in coming days
* 47 people were on or near the island when the volcano erupted - 24 Australians, nine from the US, five Kiwis, four Germans, two Chinese, two from UK and one from Malaysia

A promise has been made to the families of those killed in the Whakaari/White Island eruption - the bodies of their loved ones will be returned.

But the big question is when, with scientists warning there remains a "high risk" of another eruption on the volatile volcanic island.

Police say 47 people from all over the world were on or near White Island when the volcano erupted on Monday.

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Of those, six have been confirmed dead.

Eight others are missing and presumed dead, lying where they fell.

Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims says they will return to recover the bodies of those left on Whakaari/White Island. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims says they will return to recover the bodies of those left on Whakaari/White Island. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Police Deputy Commissioner John Tims said they understood the stress and grief the families were experiencing, and the importance of returning to the island to retrieve loved ones.

"We will deliver on the promise of our return to the island. Those families and friends deserve closure."

But he reiterated they would only do so when they could manage the risks involved.

GNS Science on Wednesday said the risk of another eruption within 24 hours akin to Monday's tragedy had increased to 40-60 per cent, from 35-50 per cent on Tuesday.

"Yesterday it was high risk, and today is even higher," senior scientist Graham Leonard said.

GNS Science says the risk of another eruption has increased. Photo / White Island Flights
GNS Science says the risk of another eruption has increased. Photo / White Island Flights

Tims said they had developed a recovery plan and as soon as emergency personnel knew they could manage the risks they would return.

"It is our number one priority. We will return."

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Tims apologised for telling media on Tuesday that police had launched a criminal investigation into the tragedy. Police later backtracked, saying they were only investigating on behalf of the coroner.

Tims said last night he should have chosen his words more wisely.

Thirty people remain in hospital, with 24 in regional burns units and the other six to be transferred as soon as possible. Three others have been discharged.

The majority of those on the island were passengers on the cruise ship Ovation of the Seas hailing from Australia, China, Germany, Malaysia, Britain and the US. Five were from New Zealand.

National Civil Defence Director Sarah Stuart-Black said international families of the deceased were starting to arrive in Whakatāne. Photo / Mark Mitchell
National Civil Defence Director Sarah Stuart-Black said international families of the deceased were starting to arrive in Whakatāne. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Most have serious burn injuries to at least 30 per cent of their body, while some as high as 90 per cent.

The bodies of the dead were being transported to Auckland where post mortems and formal identification were taking place.

International families of the deceased and missing were due to start arriving in Whakatāne and processes were in place to accommodate them, National Civil Defence director Sarah Stuart-Black said.

Immigration NZ would be expediting visa applications for those arriving who needed visas, she said.

Whakaari/White Island shortly after the eruption on Monday. Photo / White Island Flights
Whakaari/White Island shortly after the eruption on Monday. Photo / White Island Flights

Earlier on Wednesday Acting Assistant Commissioner Bruce Bird said experts were working to make the identification process "as smooth and accurately and as swift" as they could.

Victim identification was being done as per international standards which were "stringent".

"(It) will take some time," Bird said.

Chief Coroner Judge Deborah Marshall explained that once the bodies got to Auckland a dedicated team of police, pathologists, scientists and forensic odontologists would work together to match bodies to identities before referring each to one of three coroners for final sign-off.

Only then could the bodies be released.

"We will be working as hard as we can to return any deceased to their whanau," said Coroner Marshall.

Whakatāne Mayor Judy Turner said local families were "desperate" to bring their loved ones home.

She described the situation as "horrendous".