They were couples on honeymoons, families on holiday and a teen at work. But their lives changed in an instant after the White Island volcano disaster. Six months on – the survivors are rising from the ashes
- The White Island volcano off New Zealand’s south island erupted on December 9, 2019, claiming the lives of 21
- When the volcano – believed to be dormant – blew up, there were 47 people on the island, the majority tourists
- All who survived the tragedy suffered burns – some to 90 per cent of their body – and spent months in hospital
- Among the heartbreaking stories were survivors who woke from comas to find out they had lost their families
- Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19
While most of the world has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, the White Island volcano disaster continues to consume the lives of everyone who survived.
Horrific burns and the loss of loved ones mean the events of December 9, 2019, will forever live with those who were lucky enough to make it out alive.
The eruption – which happened off the coast of Whakatane on New Zealand‘s North Island – saw tourists trapped on the island, unable to outrun the plumes of acidic gas and ash that surrounded them.
When the volcano erupted there were 47 people on the island. Only 26 would survive the blast.
Some saw their entire families wiped out, others suffered excruciating burns to nearly all of their bodies and many have undergone dozens of surgeries or spent time in comas.
More than six months on, these are the stories of the White Island survivors.
The White Island volcano erupted on December 9, 2019, with 47 people trapped on the island. The disaster would claim the lives of 21 people
Stephanie Browitt (left) survived the White Island disaster, but her sister Krystal (right) and their father Paul were both killed instantly
After more than six months of treatment in hospital Stephanie, 23, returned home last month to the excitement of her much loved pet dog
Stephanie Browitt’s return home from hospital last month was a bitter sweet moment for her and her mother.
While it was a major step in the 23-year-old’s recovery, it was a tough reminder that the home she once knew will never be again.
The volcano eruption not only left her with third-degree burns to 70 per cent of her body and without part of her fingers, but it also claimed the lives of her father and younger sister.
Krystal Browitt, 21, was killed in the blast, while her father Paul died of his injuries in hospital.
In an emotional post on the day she returned home, Stephanie told her friends and family how she wished she could have been with her father and sister in their last moments.
The volcano eruption not only left her with third-degree burns to 70 per cent of her body but also without part of her fingers
Stephanie Browitt (left, right), 23, told friends earlier this month that time has not made the White Island volcano eruption any easier
‘Honestly, every time it’s the ninth of each month I can feel my heart racing and my body tense as the memory of it floods back in my mind,’ she wrote on Instagram.
‘I get anxious. I hate it so much, it does not get easier. It just hurts more and more when I think about how much time has passed since I was last with my dad and sister.
‘My heart hurts and aches for them everyday. Six months already and it still feels like it happened just yesterday. Time feels weird now. I just hope every other victim and myself “manage”, because that’s all we can do.’
IVY AND RICK REED
The ability to open a two-litre bottle of soft drink was a momentous occasion for Rick and Ivy Reed on their road to recovery.
The American couple’s injuries were so severe they remained in New Zealand for two months before doctors deemed them stable enough to journey back to the U.S.
The ability to open a two-litre bottle of soft drink was a momentous occasion for Rick and Ivy Reed on their road to recovery
Six months on from the disaster, Mr and Mrs Reed provided an update on their lives to the hundreds of donors who helped raise $41,000 through a GoFundMe page.
They told how with summer in the U.S approaching they need to be careful in the sun, with the burns making their skin extra susceptible to UV.
‘The events of that day still feel unreal, yet the effects of that day are felt daily,’ they said.
‘People talk about a new normal after catastrophic events happen. I can’t say we have adapted to the new normal, I can say we have made adjustments where necessary and we are working through OT, PT, therapy and upcoming surgery to make the very best of our situation.’
Just minutes before the volcano erupted the couple had smiled happily for a camera, excited about the adventure they were set to embark on.
Mrs Reed posted that photo to Instagram not long after she and her husband were released from hospital, titling it: ‘The moment our lives changed forever’.
‘It takes a lot for me to cry, but the outpouring of support from around the world has had me shedding a lot of tears,’ she said.
The American couple’s injuries were so severe they remained in New Zealand for two months before doctors deemed them stable enough to journey back to the U.S
Jesse Langford (front) was the only member of his family to survive the White Island tragedy. He watched on from his hospital bed as his parents Anthony and Kristine, and sister Winona, were laid to rest in January
As his mother, father and younger sister were laid to rest, Jesse Langford watched on from his hospital bed.
The 19-year-old suffered burns to the majority of his body, but was somehow the only member of his family to survive the disaster.
As more than 700 people packed into a Sydney school hall to farewell Anthony, 51, Kristine, 46, and Winona Langford, 17, a eulogy written by brave Jesse was read out.
Winona, whose body was never recovered and is believed to have been washed out to sea, was remembered as a vibrant teen with a love for music and animals.
‘She was a member of the (Willoughby Girls High) school band and played the flute, taking huge delight when the band toured the USA in 2016,’ the memorial booklet at the funeral read.
Those gathered heard how Kristine and Anthony – who had booked the cruise for Mr Langford’s birthday – were loving and dedicated parents to their two children.
Jesse has been released from the burns ward but requires regular treatment at Royal North Shore Hospital.
Jesse (back) with his father Anthony (left) and sister Winona (right), whose body was never recovered from the island
A memorial service for Anthony, Kristine and Winona Langford was held in Sydney in January
Mourners embrace during the memorial service at Marist College North Shore
Teenage tour guide Jake Millbank was finally released from hospital in April, after 25 surgeries and two weeks in a coma.
Having bared the brunt of the 300C gas that erupted from the volcano Mr Millbank said it was the things he had once taken for granted that were now most special to him.
While he can’t raise his arms over his head or touch the ground his parents and sister have been by his side to support him throughout his recovery.
White Island tour guide Jake Milbank spent four months in hospital after the devastating eruption, including two weeks in a coma, with burns to 80 per cent of his body
Mr Milbank in happier times inside the crater of the White Island volcano before the eruption
‘Things like putting your socks on and off, you don’t think of that being a very big thing until you can’t do it,’ he told Newshub.
‘Having to have someone else there to put your shoes on and off is a lot different to what you’re used to.’
Mr Milbank was rescued on tour boat The Phoenix after the eruption and remembers concentrating on staying awake to keep himself alive on the journey to the mainland.
He said he remembers ‘basically everything’ from getting to the wharf in Whakatane.
‘Of course I was frightened a little bit… but it all came down to that fight or flight kind of thing,’ he said.
‘You know what you’ve got to do to survive and that was all I was really thinking about doing at the time.’
Mr Millbank said he remembers ‘basically everything’ beginning from the time he arrived back on the wharf in Whakatane
Kelsey Waghorn was wearing only a t-shirt, shorts and hiking boots when the plumes of skin searing gas and ash began raining down across White Island.
After being carried from the island by rescuers she spent 65 days in hospital – five of those in a coma – and required 14 different surgeries.
During those operations Ms Waghorn, 26, required 28 blood transfusions.
In total, the White Island survivors have so far received blood from 751 donors, and it is those people – as well as the first responders – who she credits with saving her life.
‘I want to say a heartfelt thank you to all blood donors – you saved my life’, Ms Waghorn told The New Zealand Herald.
After being carried from the island by rescuers, Kelsey Waghorn (pictured) spent 65 days in hospital – five of those in a coma – and required 14 different surgeries
Ms Waghorn this week thanked the blood donors who helped her survive during the months of treatment she required
‘I’m only here today because of their selfless act of donating. I’ll always be thankful to everyone who dropped what they were doing to “just donate blood”.
‘It means so much more to the people who need it, and their loved ones, than I think anyone else realises.’
MATT AND LAUREN UREY
It should have been the happiest time of their lives, but Matt and Lauren Urey’s honeymoon turned to disaster on December 9.
The American couple were with a tour group exploring the island when ash silently mushroomed from the volcano’s crater.
Matt and Lauren Urey’s honeymoon turned to disaster on December 9 when they were on the island when the volcano erupted
As they huddled behind a rock in the hope it would provide shelter, the couple could feel their skin ‘peeling’ off (pictured )
Within seconds the couple were fleeing for their lives.
As ash and debris rained down, Ms Urey gripped her husband’s hand and told him she loved him. She admits she thought they would die.
As they huddled behind a rock in the hope it would provide shelter, the couple could feel their skin ‘peeling’ off.
‘It was the darkest, most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,’ Mr Urey told Nine News.
‘You could just feel your skin burning, sizzling. You could feel rocks pelting down on your hard hat.
‘If I grabbed something, my hand just slid off because my skin was peeling off.’
Lisa Dallow, 48, (centre) survived the eruption but her husband Gavin, 53, (left) and daughter Zoe Hosking, 15, (right) never made it off White Island alive on December 9
After two months in a coma, Lisa Dallow woke to the horrible news that her daughter and husband were dead.
The 48-year-old blacked out shortly after the eruption and was placed in an induced coma, before being eventually transported to The Alfred hospital in Melbourne.
Her husband Gavin, 53, and daughter Zoe Hosking, 15, were killed on the island.
‘It took a while for it to sink in and then she just kept saying she can’t believe they had died,’ a family spokesperson said in the days after Mrs Dallow woke up.
Mrs Dallow can only remember flashes of the horrifying day.
‘She remembers it exploding and then telling everyone to run,’ a close friend said in the aftermath.
‘She then recalled how rocks were falling everywhere and hitting her on the back.’
Ms Dallow missed her husband’s funeral as she was in an induced coma in hospital recovering from her injuries
Gavin Dallow, 53, (left) and his step-daughter, 15-year-old Zoe Hosking, (right) died when the volcano erupted on White Island in December
John Cozad (right) managed to make it off White Island alive, but his son Chris was killed in the eruption. Mr Cozad’s wife Beverley – who chose not to go on the tour – had not idea what had occurred until she received a call from her daughter back in Australia asking if everyone was OK
Mr and Mrs Cozad’s son Chris (pictured) did not survive
Tragedy also struck for John Cozad, who managed to make it off White Island alive but lost his son Chris in the process.
Luckily, his wife Beverley had chosen not to go on the tour, and instead shopped on the main island.
Incredibly Mrs Cozad had no idea what had happened until she received a call from her daughter back in Australia, asking if everyone was OK.
‘It all went downhill from there,’ Mrs Cozad told The Canberra Times.
‘We didn’t know who’d been involved. We just didn’t know. We didn’t know anything. Just that they hadn’t come back.’
Over the months that followed the Cozad family were faced with the grim reality of having to farewell their son Chris, while still not knowing if Mr Cozad would survive.
Thankfully the 72-year-old was transported from intensive care to the burns unit in January – a major step on his way to recovery.