Six bodies have been recovered from White Island, with a water and aerial search later today to try and find the last two bodies remaining on the volcano.
Police Commissioner Mike Bush told media this afternooon: "It's not over yet".
It was believed at least one of the bodies, and possibly both, were in the water surrounding the island. A dive squad was poised to begin a search this afternoon.
Bush spoke publicly for the first time about the Whakaari/White Island tragedy after the recovery of six bodies from the island today.
"This entire event has been a traumatic and harrowing event for the community of Whakatane."
And particularly more so for the family affected, he said.
"The operation today went to plan."
He recognised the expertise of the Defence Force but said "it's not over yet. The operation was not without risk."
From the information we had the first thing we did was run our risk assessment today and talk to geoscientists to understand the risk of the volcano, he said.
The environment that staff encountered was unpredictable, challenging and those staff showed "absolute courage", he said.
He added the bodies were being transported as quickly as possible to Auckland once they had been farewelled by whanau.
"We have a process in terms of the six today."
This would be overseen by the Coroner, he said.
Two people remain missing
Unfortunately, two more people remain that we need to find, he said, so this operation will continue with an aerial search this afternoon.
As he spoke the dive team was being deployed.
He added there were two possibilities regarding the two bodies.
"We do believe at least one of them is in the water."
The second person is either on the island or in the water, he said.
Bush said they had sighted a body in the water and there had been an earlier attempt to recover that body which was unsuccessful due to weather.
"To say it was choppy would be an understatement."
"We will continue to put every effort into locating the two remaining people."
How rescue operation unfolded
A defence force representative said: "Our thoughts are with the victims and their whanau and families."
"We cannot downplay the risk involved in this operation."
There was a 6 per cent chance in any three hour period that the volcano would erupt, he said.
Staff were wearing a closed-circuit breathing apparatus, he said, so they would be protected from any gases present.
"We had a good quality mapping, that we had briefed our teams on so they knew the general area of where those persons lay."
"The operation did progress in accordance with our planning timelines."
While they were on the island with the remaining air-supply they searched some zones where they thought there might be some success but unfortunately did not find other bodies, he said.
The colonel said the people on the island came from the explosive ordnance disposal squad.
A team of eight; six men and two women had been deployed, he said.
A second-team had been on standby, he said.
"As far as their demeanour is concerned because of the bomb disposal nature of the trade - you can take it they are very level-headed individuals."
It was a unique operation, but that was what that squadron got involved in, he said.
They were always on standby in New Zealand, 24/7, he said.
"So unique but well within their level of capability."
"Without doubt, those individuals will have experienced things today" that require discussion and debrief, he said.
"I am incredibly proud of these individuals."
He was also proud of the entire response that had enabled this to occur, he said.
In particular, he acknowledged the members of the NZ Defence Force who undertook the body recovery today.
"The conditions and terrain on the island were difficult."
It was important for all to understand behind the plan lied a broad range of defence force capabilities, he said.
From our Royal New Zealand Navy on the scene has been the HMS Wellington, he said.
From our army, today personnel from the explosive ordinance disposal unit, and disaster identification teams, he said.
They served with pride to help our fellow New Zealander and the citizens of the world, he said.
Ngāti Awa spokesman Rian McKinstry said they had come together to wrap around the bereaved families.
It was their role it to make sure they had protocols in place to look after those who had been affected, he said.
- Additional reporting news.com.au