Volcano survivor’s horrific account
One of the Australian survivors from last year's White Island eruption has revealed she was never told about the heightened risk until it was too late.
Stephanie Browitt from Victoria was one of the 47 people on the volcanic White Island in New Zealand's northeastern Bay of Plenty region when it erupted in December last year.
Stephanie, her younger sister and their dad, decided to do a day trip to the island while on a cruise on the Ovation of the Seas.
Unbeknowst to them, the island was on level 2 at the time indicating moderate to heightened volcanic unrest.
Speaking to 60 Minutes, Stephanie said she wasn't told about the heightened risk by the cruise ship or tour company until she was already on the island.
"It really hurts and upsets me and frustrates me that we weren't told," she said. "It's a major factor in making an informed decision about going on the island and visiting it. And it's just such a huge piece of information to be left out."
The volcano erupted just after 2pm, sending ash plume more than 3km into the air.
"We started seeing smoke coming out of the crater," Stephanie said. "And the first thing we did was take a photo, not realising that's an eruption and the danger.
"Only a few seconds later, we heard the front tour guide scream, 'Run!' And that's when we realised, crap!
"You could hear the sound of all the rocks hitting the ground and people just screaming because no one knew what to do," Stephanie said. "Everyone was just petrified. And then when it hit, it was just darkness.
"I didn't think I would survive. I thought I was going to die. It was just rolling me over, the force was just that strong, that my whole body was being shoved and pushed and rolled onto the ground. I was just hitting things while getting burnt at the same time.
"It was the most terrifying moment of my life," Stephanie said. "The ground was burning hot. And I could tell I was burnt really badly. I could see my hand and I could see nails hanging off and skin loose."
COMING TO THE RESCUE
Two local helicopter pilots, Jason Hill and Tom Storey, were in nearby Whakatane and they immediately rushed to the scene in their chopper to help.
They landed safely on White Island roughly one hour after the eruption and communicated with emergency services that it was safe to land.
There was a fleet of 11 search and rescue helicopters on Whakatane which could have reached White Island in just 20 minutes, but authorities chose not to send them.
"The information we were receiving at that time was that it was unsafe to land on the island," St John Medical Director Dr Tony Smith told 60 Minutes.
Dr Smith said Jason and Tom's advice that it was safe to land somehow got lost.
"I was not privy to what that information was," he said. "On that day we were receiving huge amounts of information from multiple people."
Stephanie's dad, Paul, managed to get Jason and Tom's attention when they landed on the island.
Jason flew Stephanie, her sister Krystal and their dad in his helicopter with two other survivors to Whakatane Hospital.
Sadly, Krystal didn't make it.
"I found out that my sister passed away a few weeks after I'd awoken from my coma," Stephanie told 60 Minutes. "It haunts me not knowing what she went through, and it upsets me knowing that I wasn't there with her."
Four weeks later, Stephanie's dad Paul also died from his injuries.
"It broke me a little," Stephanie said. "I wish I could thank my dad and tell him that he was a hero. I wish I could just let him know how amazing his actions were on that day.
"Sometimes I just question why I'm here. Why was it me out of everyone?"
21 people died as a result of the White Island eruption.
Stephanie has had eight fingers amputated and has had more than 20 operations since the incident.
She has documented her recovery journey on Instagram, sharing photos of her shocking injuries.
Now, almost a year later, Stephanie is still angered by the decision not to send the 11 rescue helicopters in Whakatane.
"It's very upsetting just because I know it definitely would have made a difference for a lot of the people that were there that were waiting," Stephanie told 60 Minutes. "Lives could have been saved that day."
Dr Smith now admits they made the wrong call and "could have flown to the island earlier".
But he's adamant it wouldn't have made much of a difference.
"I'm absolutely medically confident unfortunately we were not going to save any more additional people," he said on the Channel 9 show.
Litigator Peter Gordon is now suing cruise company Royal Caribbean on Stephanie's behalf.
"Their standard of conduct goes beyond negligent, to what seems to me to be a wanton and reckless indifference to what was going to happen on that island," Mr Gordon told 60 Minutes.
Royal Caribbean would not comment on the pending litigation but told 60 Minutes "their hearts go out to all those affected".
Originally published as Volcano survivor's horrific account