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'A rolling grey ash cloud.' Exactly what it was like at White Island the day it erupted.


At 2.11pm local time, on December 9, 2019, New Zealand's most active volcano Whakaari / White Island erupted.

At the time, there were 47 people on the island which sits 48 kilometres off the coast of Whakatāne on the mainland. Twenty-two people, including 14 Australians were killed. A further 25 people suffered serious, many critical, injuries and serious burns.

Geoff Hopkins, from the North Island city of Hamilton, had visited Whakaari / White Island 25 years ago, and had always wanted to return with his 22-year-old daughter Lillani, who was studying geology.

Watch: Whakaari / White Island survivors on 60 Minutes. Post continues below video.


Video via Nine.

December 9 was the day. 

Geoff recalled the unique landscape of Whakaari, with its rugged cliffs and little vegetation.

"It's quite barren. Just very unnatural colours, bright white and bright yellow crystals, pungent sulfur, gas streams that had hues of green and red in them," he told Mamamia's daily news podcast The Quicky.

"It's how you might imagine a lunar landscape."

After visiting the volcano crater and taking in the scenery, Geoff and Lillani returned to a tour boat which began the return journey to Whakatāne.

Listen: White Island, one year on. Post continues below audio.

Minutes into the ride back, Geoff told Mamamia's daily news podcast The Quicky he heard a commotion from the other side of the boat - the side facing the volcano.

"When I turned around, I was faced with this towering cloud of bright, white, ashy grey and black.

"And instantly, I knew it was erupting. But for a split second, it just looked incredible."

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Geoff remembered thinking how special it was to witness from just a few hundred metres off-shore. But then, within seconds, a "rolling grey ash cloud" came over the cliffs and down towards the ocean.

The boat crew lowered an inflatable boat and headed back to the island - entirely engulfed in ash - then returned, yelling to ask if there were any medical staff on board and retrieving first aid kits.

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"That just got our attention that there were people with injuries. We didn't know what injuries, and I went to the crew member that was grabbing the first aid kits and said 'hey, we're first aid trained, can we help?' She said 'yes, please, we need all the help we've got'," Geoff recalled.

Geoff and Lillani followed her back to the inflatable boat, and that's when they were first faced with the extent of the survivor's injuries.

"I was expecting to see abrasions, cuts from flying rocks, but what we were faced with was just the most horrific burns. I've never seen anything else like it," he said.

"From minor, to the absolute severe. There were people who, it was like their face and hands were made of wax and it just started to melt."

All but three of the 25 survivors suffered severe injuries. Many are still recovering. In July, German man Horst Westenfelder died due to complications while receiving treatment for his injuries. 

The view of the island the day after the eruption. Image: Getty.

The death toll is 22, with 14 Australians, five Americans, two New Zealand tour guides and Westenfelder among those killed. Two bodies were not able to be recovered.

For Geoff, the days directly after the eruption - and the entire year since - have meant facing a lot of trauma.

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"From the point at which it erupted to all the way back to Whakatāne and then, guess, ever since then, it has been traumatic," he said.

"The first couple of weeks were really hard. You just go over things in your mind about whether you could've done something more, you could've helped differently, maybe you could've done something different that would've made an impact. You play that over in your mind. 

"You know, time does heal and with family and friends and some counselling and professional help, you learn to take those experiences and try to bring some positive out of them.

"I'm definitely changed. I'm different because of it, but I'm really focussed on that being a good thing. But it's not easy."

Whakaari / White Island is a very active volcano. It holds the record for the longest historical eruption episode, going off continually between December 1975 and September 2000. It also erupted in 2012, 2013 and 2016.

The New Zealand Defence Force enters Whakaari / White Island during a recovery operation on December 13, 2019. Image: Getty.

In the weeks leading up to December 9, 2019, the volcano had been showing signs that it was close to erupting again.

Two weeks beforehand, New Zealand's volcanic monitoring authority had increased the volcano's warning level to level 2. This marked the highest alert level before an eruption took place, and indicated "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest" with the "potential for eruption hazards".

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But tours continued.

A year on, the Whakaari / White Island eruption is going to play out in court.

Here in Australia, law firm Stacks Goudkamp is representing survivors and family members of those who died in a case against cruise ship operator Royal Caribbean, the company whose ship many of the Australians involved in the incident were travelling with.

Stacks Goudkamp lawyer told The Quicky the lawsuit was seeking compensation, as well as closure and a sense of justice for those involved.

"The ideal outcome would be to get their lives back. Unfortunately, that's not going to happen, so I suppose the next best thing is that they get compensation that will help them to deal with the damage and loss and injuries that they've suffered," she said.

"A big part of going through what they're going through is a financial burden that they didn't have previously, in terms of dealing with horrific injuries, in terms of dealing with wage loss, in terms of dealing with needs that they didn't have before.

"But also part of it is to achieve a sense of justice, that companies like the cruise company need to be kept accountable. That it's not just a matter of them receiving money from people and receiving profit, but they have responsibilities to make sure that they're running their activities in a safe way and that safety and looking after people in paramount."

In New Zealand, workplace health and safety regulator WorkSafe filed charges against 13 parties on November 30.

GNS Science, which is responsible for monitoring volcanic activity on the island; the National Emergency Management Agency (Civil Defence) and tour operators Volcanic Air and White Island Tours all confirmed they are facing charges.

Also charged were helicopter pilots Mark Law, chief executive of Kahu NZ, and Tim Barrow, director and chief pilot at Volcanic Air Helicopters and Floatplanes, who both risked their lives to fly to the island after the eruption to pick up survivors.

Their efforts have been credited with saving lives.

A Change.org petition was launched in support of pilots, receiving more than 111,000 signatures in just six days.

Feature image: Getty.