In December 2019, tourists set out for New Zealand’s White Island (also called Whakaari). Since the early ‘90s, the active volcano has attracted thousands of vacationers – about 17,000 a year. And it’s no surprise, considering how the island is an 800-acre fantasyland – a land that dreams are made of. But, on this particular day in December, it turned into a nightmare. The fact that the volcano is still active means it’s basically a catastrophe waiting to happen. Just ask those who were there to see it.
On December 9, during what was supposed to be a routine six-hour tour around the island, including a quick hike on the land, the volcano suddenly exploded. This is a true story of the day when the worst-case scenario became too real when, despite issued warnings, people still ventured onto the unpredictable yet magnificent volcano.
On the deck of the Phoenix, a 60-foot catamaran, a man named Geoff Hopkins put his arm around his daughter, and the two stared at the magnificent and exotic White Island. He and the rest of the tourists who paid for a half-day excursion were 30 miles off the coast of New Zealand. Skipper Paul Kingi killed the engines and slipped an anchor into the water, letting the boat rest a hundred yards from the shore.
From there, the vacationers would be ferried on an inflatable raft to the island. But first, there were a few precautions: tour guides distributed hard hats and gas masks. It was a volcano, after all. Hopkins stepped onto the ground, catching a whiff of sulfur dioxide and sensing faint vibrations from deep within the earth. But what are the chances?…
Hopkins, an evangelical pastor, lived with his family a few hours away, in Hamilton, New Zealand. He had been to the island before, but this time he was celebrating his 50th birthday with his 22-year-old daughter Lillani, who had surprised him with tickets. Now on the island, the father-daughter duo trekked along with the rest of the group.
Along the way, they stopped to take photos. It’s not every day that you see puffing gas coming from the ground, a stream with scalding water, yellow sulfur, and lava rocks with glittering crystals and black volcanic glass. But it all came with a warning from the guide: do not stray from the trail. One false step, she said, and a person could plunge through the soft ground into scorching water.
The guide pointed to a shipping container that was designated as a shelter – a last resort in the event of an eruption. Unsettling? Very. But the guide assured them not to worry. She explained that scientists monitor White Island day in and day out. After a 45-minute hike, they arrived at a cliff 60 feet above a bright, green lake.
Up until this point, Hopkins and the other tourists had been lugging around their gas masks. But now they put them on, breathing heavily to find clean air. A rather ironic scene, they all took pictures of the lake and of themselves. They were dressed the part – ready for danger. But since that day was so serene and beautiful, the impending doom wasn’t obvious. At least, not to them.
They followed a path back to the sea. It was around 1:30 p.m., and Hopkins noticed a second catamaran offshore. Another group had arrived for the afternoon tour. He, Lillani and the rest of their group were ferried back to the Phoenix. On the boat, he took out his iPhone and snapped one last photo. If you enlarge the photo, the people look like indistinct specks, gathered high on the mountain, along the edge of the lake.
“Hey, you can see the other group up there,” said the skipper. The image’s timestamp was 2:07 p.m. Four minutes later, Hopkins heard shouting from fellow passengers onboard who were gathered on the starboard side of the boat. He rushed over to see what all the commotion was…
That’s when he saw an enormous cloud billowing over the crater of the volcano. Then the plume turned sideways, seemingly headed straight for the boat. People on the boat screamed and ducked down under their seats. Just like that, the 47 tourists who were still on the island were enveloped in a cloud of gas and debris.
Kingi, the Skipper, cranked the wheel and steered the boat back toward the volcano. He had no choice: they had to help. The eruption of White Island on December 9, 2019, was a shock to everyone there, but it was no surprise. As a matter of fact, the volcano had been bubbling with intention for thousands of years.
It’s easy for visitors to downplay – or misjudge – the dangers of the volcano. Back in 1769, when Captain James Cook sailed by the island, he named it White Island because he confused the puffs of volcanic steam for clouds. But the indigenous Maori gave their homeland a more fitting name: Te Puia O Whakaari, which means “the dramatic volcano.”
The way they saw it, spirits summoned the gift of fire from deep below the island, granting it to their ancestors. The island that rises more than a thousand feet out of the ocean is as real as it gets. And it has a history of eruptions. In 1914, when locals were mining sulfur, an eruption buried 10 of them in a landslide that, believe it or not, spared only the company’s cat.
Since that moment, the volcano has spewed occasional blasts of steam, gas, lava, and ash. It’s why volcanologists have been in a continuous state of alert. But somehow, despite the high alert, White Island became one of New Zealand’s biggest tourist attractions. After the sulfur company (the one with the cat) shut down, the land was purchased by the Buttles, a family from Auckland, New Zealand.
The Buttles saw an opportunity on the island. They could sell visitors the chance to tour a live volcano. In 1990, their idea took off when a couple, Peter and Jenny Tait, purchased exclusive marine landing rights from the Buttles. With that, they established White Island Tours in Whakatane, a town now considered the gateway to the island.
The Taits brought in a fleet of high-speed boats, opened a beachfront hotel, and began promoting the volcano as a worldwide attraction. But, if you were to ask volcanologists, they would say White Island was the most volatile 800-acre playground on earth. If you’re wondering why on earth anyone would willingly come to an active volcano and PAY for it, let me just say this.
New Zealand is basically built for high-risk adventure. People from all over the world come to bungee jump off cliffs and hike across crevasse-ridden glaciers. So New Zealanders weren’t doubtful of this kind of tour. And volcanoes as tourist attractions are not that rare.
Although other volcanoes around the world are open to tourists, few are as accessible as White Island, where exploring the crater is as easy as stepping out of a boat. Let’s also accept the fact that the island is a visual jaw-dropper. And in today’s Instagram-obsessed world, the photos of people in hard hats and gas masks standing in front of a green “acid” lake are “totally up-worthy.”
Even Hollywood directors have shot scenes on the island for movies like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Mulan. By the time the Taits sold White Island Tours in 2017 to a holding company operated by the local Maori tribe, the place was raking in 17,000 visitors a year.
Some experts regarded the whole initiative as a disaster waiting to happen. They believed that if the volcano ever exploded, it would likely be without warning, with a hit of molten rock and broiling steam suddenly pouring in every direction. Surprise! That means that anybody who would be visiting the crater would die on the spot.
Of course, promoters and supporters of the business venture (those with money on their minds) downplayed the risk. They argued that the chances were small. Plus, in their eyes, the whole idea of danger was a part of the island’s appeal. At the end of the day, isn’t that what New Zealand is all about?
But if there’s anyone who knows White Island best, it’s Nico Fournier, one of the world’s most seasoned volcano watchers. The Frenchman learned early in his career that studying volcanoes essentially means to prepare for disaster. As the lead volcanologist at GNS Science, New Zealand’s main geological institute, Fournier keeps track of White Island’s rumblings.
How? By maintaining a battery of sensors, solar-powered cameras, gas detectors, and a Global Positioning System in the crater. They also send drones and manned aircraft to conduct flyovers. Day and night, his team tries to understand what the volcano is up to — or rather, what it’s preparing to do. In 2016, there were some warning signs.
One evening in April 2016, the volcano spewed green ash for 90 minutes. Had it occurred during the daytime, the results would have been catastrophic. Lava and rocks were thrown out of the volcano – around the tourist track. In September of that year, another smaller explosion happened, also at night.
Fournier referred to those eruptions as “eye-openers,” that basically emphasized the unpredictability of White Island. These eruptions prompted serious discussions in the scientific community about whether tourists should be allowed on the island at all. The problem with White Island is that tour groups get dangerously close to the source of any eruption. Perhaps you remember the infamous Mount St. Helens eruption…
“Those who died at Mount St. Helens were kilometers away,” Fournier said, referring to the infamous Washington State eruption that took the lives of 57 people in 1980. “At White Island, even a minor eruption could have devastating consequences.” But, after those evening eruptions, White Island sat silently for three years.
In June, six months before December’s blast, White Island started giving off new signs of agitation. 1,900 tons of sulfur dioxide were pouring from vents in the earth — three times the normal daily discharge. They had never seen anything like it. The data suggested that magma was possibly rising to the surface. So why were people still going to the island?
Fournier explained: “It’s the same thing that happens when you shake a Champagne bottle and open the cork.” He and his team sent a public warning, escalating the threat from Level 1 “minor volcanic unrest” to Level 2 “heightened volcanic unrest.” As per routine, his team announced the elevated risk by flooding the local media and contacting White Island Tours, as well as several helicopter-tour agencies that visit the volcano.
Yet, nobody could predict what would happen and when. Who knows? Maybe nothing would happen at all. After all, these kinds of alerts had been issued before, and no explosions had occurred. According to the Maori trust, which had recently taken over the tour business, the clues of something happening underground wasn’t enough to cancel the trips.
Four months later, on November 18, there was an increase in tremors, indicating that things were happening below the surface. From above, the volcano was obviously stirring. George Walker, a pilot who had flown tourists to White Island for a decade and had been over the island more than 6,000 times, said that in December, it grew obvious that the volcano was stirring.
“There was a lot more steam visible,” Walker said. In the meantime, a 1,138-foot Royal Caribbean Cruise ship called Ovation of the Seas was steaming toward New Zealand. 4,000 passengers were aboard a 12-day South Pacific trip. On the evening of December 8, 2019, the liner docked in Tauranga, on the Bay of Plenty. On the roster for the next day: a trip to White Island.
In recent years, Royal Caribbean had started selling tickets to visit the volcano. But, as the island’s alert level was raised, White Island Tours warned would-be visitors on its website that “There is the potential for eruption hazards.” The post read: “Passengers should be aware that there is always a risk of eruptive activity regardless of the alert level. White Island Tours follows a comprehensive safety plan which determines our activities on the island at various levels.”
But who knows to check a cruise line’s website when you’re already on your trip? It seems as though Royal Caribbean staffers gave no information to those signing up. “My sister had no real idea of the increased danger that had been reported, and would have expected that… Royal Caribbean would have advised her if there were real concerns,” is what the brother of a passenger who visited White Island on December 9.
White Island Tours told its patrons nothing beyond what it had already published on its site. Remember Geoff Hopkins, who went there with his daughter? He said, “There was no specific briefing in Whakatane regarding the raising of the Level 1 to 2.” And, to be fair, he also admitted that he wouldn’t have been dissuaded even if he had known of the possible danger.
But one Royal Caribbean passenger was reportedly so shaken after reading the online warning that he backed out of his trip. And, only then, after he questioned the Royal Caribbean, did a staff member acknowledge the warning level. Yet, the 38 passengers who had signed up to visit White Island — either undeterred or unaware – boarded the catamaran with four tour guides.
One of the four tour leaders was Hayden Marshall-Inman, a 40-year-old guide who had been taking visitors to the crater for a decade. He recently got his skipper’s license, and so he was spending more time piloting the boat rather than leading the tours. But, since December was peak season, he’d received a last-minute call to guide a group from the Royal Caribbean.
Hayden understood the risk. He knew that the more he went to White Island, the higher the chance that he would encounter an eruption. But still, he downplayed it. In his personal journal, he indicated that this tour would mark his 1,111th trip. At 1:15 p.m., Hayden landed ashore with the group and led them toward the lake.
Meanwhile, a group arrived via helicopter with their pilot. All in all, there were 47 people on White Island at that moment. The sky was bright, the mood was calm, and everything was going as smoothly as ever. After reaching the green lake, the group hung around for 20 minutes, taking photos and peppering their guides with questions about volcanoes, local history, and Maori legend.
Suddenly, at the rear of the lake, short pulses of steam started to burst out. The spray reached hundreds of feet into the sky. This wasn’t right. Something was happening. Seconds later, White Island exploded. That’s when a colossal amount of steam, toxic gases, and molten rocks shot up more than 10,000 feet. The resulting shock wave hurled the grounded helicopter 900 yards from its landing pad.
As the wall of debris fell, it swept across the island at 20 to 30 mph, like an avalanche overtaking Hayden and the group he had with him and tragically swallowing them up in a matter of seconds. All it takes is a few seconds to create a major catastrophe. Fournier estimated that the temperature inside the spewing cloud would have been between 200 and 390 degrees.
Hayden and his group were closest to the site of the eruption and thus didn’t stand a chance. Some might have been instantly killed by the pressure wave, while others would have the air knocked out of their lungs. “Hopefully, it was sudden,” Fournier said. As the blast occurred, the difference between who lived and who died mostly came down to chance.
It would depend on whether or not they could find shelter — a boulder, a gully, a sulfur pillar — when the cloud passed. Two foreign tourists who arrived on the helicopter that was lying mangled by the water were standing on the shore when the cloud swept toward them. According to pilot George Walker, “They were going, ‘F***, f***, f***.’”
Apparently, their pilot told them to jump into the sea. Amazingly, they had no injuries whatsoever. Two fellow passengers who failed to move as quickly didn’t fare so well. In the end, nobody on the island managed to make it to that shipping container — the last-resort safety measure.
On the deck of the Phoenix, where Hopkins, his daughter, and everyone else was watching the disaster, an unprepared young guide ordered everyone inside. Hopkins figured their training hadn’t prepared them for this. Skipper Paul Kingi sped back to the island, but, fearing another eruption, he didn’t anchor the boat.
He motored slowly as the guides lowered the inflatable raft into the bay. A few of the young staffers were racing toward the dock. Those on the island were stumbling out of the cloud. Meanwhile, Hopkins’s guide rummaged through cupboards for first aid kits. Hopkins offered to help, and so the guide thrust the medical supplies into their hands. Then, father and daughter waited on deck for the first boatload of victims to arrive.
When the raft returned, the impact of the disaster was clear. The injuries were horrifying. The first survivors managed to climb aboard without assistance — “Adrenaline is a hell of a drug,” an emergency physician who later treated the victims said. But their faces, hands, and legs were badly burned. Some were screaming, while others were silent.
Hopkins and his daughter did the best they could with the resources they had. He gave the able-bodied passengers water and attended to the burns. Within 13 minutes, the raft took 23 survivors from the island to the Phoenix. When it was clear that there was nobody else, the skipper gunned the engines and headed for Whakatane. On the boat, some victims faded into unconsciousness while others were going into shock.
As the Phoenix raced to Whakatane, the Coast Guard appeared. Kingi slowed his boat, and the team of paramedics came aboard. Then Kingi sped toward the wharf, where ambulances were waiting. A man named Mark Law was driving along the coast at 2:11 p.m. when he spotted the huge plume of smoke out at sea.
The 48-year-old former New Zealand military officer realized what he was seeing. He was the owner of Kahu NZ, a helicopter company that runs volcano tours from Whakatane’s Airport. As a veteran pilot, he knew that tourists and guides were there and that there would be many casualties. He also knew that he could help. So he raced to the airport. On the way, he heard the chatter on his police-band radio, hearing that rescue teams were fearful of a second eruption.
When Law arrived at the airport, he grabbed his gas mask, climbed into his Airbus AS350 A-Star helicopter, and fired it up. He had no permission from authorities, no clearance. But he wasn’t going to sit and wait. Soon, Law was in the air and heading toward the volcano at 100 mph. Two of his colleagues, Jason Hill and Tom Storey, were flying their choppers behind him.
20 minutes later, as Law approached the island, gas and ash still towered in the air. But enough of the cloud had dissolved, revealing the crater’s transformation into a monochromatic wasteland. He flew about 200 feet above it, seeing those unfortunate souls lying on the ground. He found a spot to land, halfway up the crater.
He strapped on his gas mask and stepped out, sinking to his shins in ash. He trudged across what looked like the surface of the moon. After seeing the bleeding bodies, he spotted his friend: Hayden Marshall-Inman, who was lying unresponsive in a stream. Law moved his body and placed it on the bank. He then counted seven more deceased.
Some were still alive and struggled to communicate. High above, pilot George Walker circled around in his Cessna 172, looking for signs of a second eruption. On the ground, Law, Hill, and Storey carried the injured survivors to their helicopters. By then, another helicopter pilot, Tim Barrow, swooped in and saved two more victims. With White Island at their backs, the pilots raced toward the mainland.
Of the 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption, 21 died, and 24 were injured. Of the 12 that were flown out by the pilots, 10 died. At Whakatane Hospital, Kelly Phelps, an American senior emergency physician, raised the alarm the moment she learned of the eruption. She had visited the island in 2010 and understood its potential for destruction.
She called the dispatcher, telling her to activate the hospital’s “mass-casualty plan.” She then changed into her scrubs, checked the medical supplies, organized doctors, nurses, and pharmacists into teams, and waited outside the ambulance doors for the victims to arrive. Law’s helicopter was the first to get there at 4:09 p.m., about two hours after the blast.
After that, the survivors continued to pour in by chopper, and ambulances arrived with victims that were aboard the Phoenix. Law was about to return to the volcano, but he was told by emergency services to stand down. The island was simply too dangerous; the area was being sealed off. In the emergency room, several victims died within hours.
Most, however, were airlifted or taken by ambulance to burn units in New Zealand and Australia. 22 were in critical condition, some with third-degree burns that covered up to 95 percent of their bodies. The focus then shifted to the eight bodies left behind on the island. For the next 72 hours, Fournier and his team monitored the volcano around the clock. They determined that it had a 50–50 chance of erupting again.
With families of the deceased demanding action, three days after the blast, eight members (six men and two women) of New Zealand Special Forces set out on rubber boats to retrieve the bodies. Thanks to drone imagery, they knew the exact location of the bodies. The recovery team, in their gas masks and hazmat suits, moved across the moonscape as Fournier remained on the naval ship, watching through binoculars for signs of volcanic activity.
The team swiftly recovered six corpses, carrying them out in nets dangling from helicopters. There were two bodies, however, that were still missing: those of Hayden Marshall-Inman and an Australian teenager named Winona Langford (whose parents also died there).
Two days later, forensic specialists landed on the island at the crater’s midpoint and followed the path where Mark Law had found Hayden’s corpse, but there was no sign of him. Senior Sergeant Karl Wilson believes that torrential rain washed the last two bodies into the Bay of Plenty. In honor of the lost victims, the local Maori banned all vessels, swimmers, and surfers from the water for a week.
It was their way of respecting the bereaved families and protecting the mauri – life force – where the dead were laid to rest. Later, they honored Hayden Marshall-Inman, “the free-spirited Kiwi” who knew the volcano better than anyone else, as the “guardian” of Te Puia O Whakaari.
Bill Hodge, a New Zealand attorney, examined the waiver that passengers had to sign absolving Royal Caribbean from any blame, injury, or death. According to Hodge, it’s “pretty ironclad.” But the cruise line was nonetheless sued, just recently (June 2020) by a couple who were on the island at the time of the eruption.
A Virginia couple, Matthew Urey and Lauren Barham was on their honeymoon at the time. They sustained burns to 54% and 23% of their bodies, respectively. The lawsuit alleges that both the cruise line and the excursion company (ID Tours New Zealand Limited) were negligent, having not informed them of the potential dangers of visiting the volcano. Royal Caribbean then responded to the lawsuit…
Their claim: “We continue to support the needs of those affected by this tragic incident. We respectfully decline further comment while the investigation is still proceeding.” According to the lawsuit, Royal Caribbean’s shore excursion brochure referenced White Island as “one of the most active volcanoes in the world.”
But they failed to notify the couple that a 5.9 magnitude earthquake about 6.2 miles from the volcano had occurred two weeks earlier. The couple’s attorney, Michael Winkleman, said, “the applicable maritime law holds that Royal Caribbean has a well-defined legal duty to warn its passengers of known dangers. As the Complaint alleges, Royal Caribbean egregiously breached this duty to warn.” Since it’s a fairly recent lawsuit, time will tell what the outcome will be.
As for Geoff Hopkins, the 51-year-old remains troubled (perhaps traumatized) by the horrors that he observed that day. A month after the explosion, the shirt Hopkins wore that day hangs unused in his wardrobe, still smelling of ash and sulfur, even though he has washed it a dozen times.
For his daughter, Lillani, even small things — a walk past a stinky drain or a view of the sea — immediately bring the images back. “I’m still stuck there,” she stated. But she doesn’t blame White Island Tours for the casualties, and she also said she won’t rule out a trip to another active volcano, believe it or not. “We knew what we were doing. It was a live volcano,” Hopkins said. “Everyone knew the risk.”