Real Life

Real life: I survived the White Island volcano eruption

I was awestruck by the volcano's beauty, until it unleashed it's fury.

By Laura Masia

Lillani Hopkins, 22, from Hamilton, NZ, shares her incredible story;

I stared out the car window at the rolling hills as my dad, Geoff, drove along the coastline.
We were on our way to Whakaari, or White Island, an active volcano off the coast of New Zealand's North Island.
It had last erupted three years earlier and I'd bought tickets for Dad and I to do a tour there for his 50th birthday.
He'd visited the island as a kid and always dreamed of going back.
I was just as excited. I'd always been fascinated by volcanoes and even studied geology at uni.
The night before, the tour company had emailed saying that the tour might be cancelled due to weather conditions but thankfully they'd since confirmed it would go ahead.
When we got to the dock, we signed a safety agreement saying we understood the risks involved before heading onto the boat for a 45 minute ride to the island.
Although we were about to walk onto an active volcano, we weren't worried.
Authorities wouldn't let us go if it was unstable and it hadn't erupted in years.
I felt queasy as the vessel rocked over the waves.
"Nearly there," Dad soothed.
We were given gas masks for any puffs of gas coming out of the volcano and yellow hard hats in case any rocks or debris got tossed into the air.
With solid ground under my feet, I breathed a sigh of relief.
I'd always been interested in volcanoes. (Getty)
Dad and I marvelled at the island. It felt like we were on another planet.
White steam clouds oozed from the mottled yellow, grey and white earth, and little puddles boiled steadily.
"Stick to the paths," our tour guide warned as we made our way around the island.
At first, Dad and I stuck together, but then I got chatting to our tour guide about the fascinating rocks and minerals, and fell behind the group.
We stared out over the carbonated lake that had formed inside a crater, a thin film of green and red algae bubbling on the surface.
"What would happen if there was an eruption?"I asked the guide.
She smiled as if she'd been asked that question a million times.
"First we'd run for shelter behind big rocks," she explained.
"Then, if we could make it to the shore, we'd find the shipping container with the emergency gear."
Two hours later, we made our way back to the dock and boarded the boat.
From the deck, Dad and I snapped some final photos before the skipper turned back for the mainland.Suddenly, everyone gasped as a huge plume of thick grey ash erupted out of the top of Whakaari.
Dad and me on White Island. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
Whipping out my phone to capture the explosion, I was stunned this once-in-a-lifetime occurrence was happening right where we'd been standing minutes earlier.
"Everyone, get inside!" the skipper urged, as ash rolled towards us.
The boat sped away to safety and we all breathed sighs of relief. Then it dawned on us… other tour groups were still on the island! Distressed sobs filled the room as our excitement quickly turned into terror.
The boat zoomed back towards Whakaari, so guides could help the injured.
My heart raced as the island changed from a mottled white colour to a deep, destructive grey.
Back at the bay, we found people were sheltering in the water, and many on-shore were covered in thick ash.
Dad and I looked at each other in horror.
"Should we help?" I asked. We'd both recently done our first aid courses.
As the crew launched dingies, I knew I couldn't just sit back.
"I can help," I told a guide.
"There are multiple burns victims," she said urgently, "treat them once they're on board. We'll rescue the others."
Dad and I got ready, filling up drink bottles for burns and eye washes.
Passengers screamed as the first load of injured people arrived at the boat.
We quickly laid them down on deck, rinsing out their eyes and tending to their wounds.
Seeing the island blow was terrifying. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
I crouched next to one young man, pouring water over his grey skin.
My eyes widened in horror as it washed away the ash to reveal red-raw burns beneath.
I had to pull myself together. Lives were at stake.
You can do this, I told myself, shutting off my emotions.
I moved him into the recovery position to keep him from going into shock.
"What's your name?" I asked him.
Between deep breaths, he told me it was Josh*.
"I'm not gonna make it," he said to me, terrified.
"You're strong and brave, Josh," I told him, holding his hand, "we'll get you to hospital as soon as we can."
We continued pouring fresh water onto the burns until half way back to shore, we ran out.
The desperate sobs and screams of agony felt like a stab to my heart.
I tried to stay calm, singing softly to myself for comfort. When I stopped, an injured man behind me grabbed
my ankle.
"Please keep singing," he begged, and I did.
Emergency services met us back at the mainland to help treat the injured.
Dad and I were escorted to a little cabin where we called my mum, Lyn, who had no
idea about the eruption.
"Thank God you're okay," she gasped.
Volcanic rock I found on the island. (Image exclusive to Take 5)
Before heading home, we exchanged numbers with tourists who didn't have any family close by, so we could check up on them.
Afterwards, it took a few days for what Dad and I had been through to sink in, but thankfully with the support of our family, friends and each other we managed to stay strong.
Slowly, more information trickled through the media and we discovered that although Josh survived, 20 people died as a result of the eruption on White Island.
Some people's bodies were never found.
That day has changed my life forever.
I live to the fullest every single day, because I've seen first-hand that your life can be taken away at any moment.
Dad and I have formed so many relationships with people who were on the island that day, and we'll cherish those friendships forever.
I'll always be fascinated by volcanoes but now I know how destructive they can be, I'll admire them from
a distance.
*Names have been changed

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