New Zealand volcano eruption death toll rises to 18

New Zealand volcano eruption death toll rises to 18

Elite soldiers taking part in a mission to retrieve bodies from White Island after the December 9 volcanic eruption, off the coast from Whakatane on the North Island. (AFP Photo)

The death toll from New Zealand's White Island volcano eruption rose to 18 on Sunday, including two people whose bodies have not been recovered, police said.

A land search early Sunday failed to find any sign of the missing pair and a sea search resumed in the afternoon amid increasing speculation both could be in the water.

"The stream where the bodies were last seen on Monday runs all the way through to the sea," deputy police commissioner Mike Clement said.

He said there was "every chance" both corpses were in the water and searchers were "satisfied that the area we searched near the jetty is clear of the bodies".

"The rescue teams are frustrated. We understand completely how frustrating it is for loved ones who want the bodies back," Clement said.

Forty-seven people were on the island -- a popular tourist attraction -- when the explosion happened.

The death toll now stands at 18 after an Australian victim who had been repatriated to Sydney died in hospital almost a week after the deadly eruption.

Another 26 survivors remain in New Zealand and Australian hospitals, of which 20 are listed as "critical" and fighting for their lives after the eruption on the desolate island, which is the country's most active volcano.

The family of the latest victim have requested his name and age not be released.

Police on Sunday named four victims who have been officially identified including New Zealand tour guide Tipene James Te Rangi Ataahua Maangi, 24.

The other three -- all Australians -- were Zoe Ella Hosking, 15, and her stepfather Gavin Brian Dallow, 53, as well as 51-year-old Anthony James Langford.

Clement said although the land and sea searches had so far been unsuccessful in finding the remaining bodies, police had not given up hope.

"There will come a time when we've done everything we can do, when we've done everything that's sensible but we're not there yet... we don't give up easily," he said.

Scientists monitoring White Island said there had been no further significant activity since last Monday's eruption but the risk remained.

A glow was visible from the vent area overnight "which confirms there is a high heat flow present," said Geoff Kilgour, a volcanologist with GNS Science, which monitors seismic and volcanic activity in New Zealand.

"This has been confirmed today by an aerial observation this morning that noted an active crater is emitting volcanic gas at a high rate and very high temperature" above 200 Celsius (392F).

The disaster has raised questions about why tourists were allowed on a volcano where experts had recently raised threat levels.

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