(CNN) — Survivors of one of New Zealand’s worst natural disasters have described the searing pain of being hit by burning sand, ash and rocks during a volcanic eruption on Whakaari or White Island in 2019 that killed 22 people.
Their stories were heard this week in a criminal lawsuit brought by WorkSafe, the country’s health and safety regulator, against six parties, including three brothers who own the island, a place once a destination popular tourist destination just 30 miles north of the island of New Zealand.
Forty-seven people were on Whakaari, the traditional Maori name for the island, at the time of the blast, including a newlywed couple and some families, who were killed or badly burned in the incident.
Via video link from Australia, tourist Annie Lu told court on Thursday that she had booked a trip to the island with her mother after reading about it in a brochure, claiming they had not been warned before being on the island that the volcano was at “level two”.
“There was no mention of dangerous things,” he said.
Under New Zealand’s six-level volcanic alert system, level two means “moderate to high volcanic disturbance” with potential for an eruption.
The tourists were equipped with helmets and gas masks, but were not told to wear or bring anything special other than closed shoes and covering clothing, Lu said.
“The impression we got was basically that it was just a casual day,” Lu said.
But what happened was an ordeal that left Lu with burns to 38% of his body, requiring multiple skin grafts that left scars on the only parts of his body that weren’t burned. .
“I Was Just Burning”
On the day of the eruption, Lu said her mother noticed a black cloud in the sky and then heard someone shouting “everyone, run”.
Video shown in court showed huge plumes of ash dwarfing the group of tourists, who had been escorted by tour guides from the pier, where their boat had docked, to the crater.
Lu said the first gust of wind blew his helmet off, and as he dived for cover behind a rock formation, he held his gas mask to his mouth.
What happened next inflicted almost indescribable waves of pain, Lu said.
“It’s as if sand and pebbles were thrown at me everywhere. Does it hurt. It really hurts,” he said. “I was just on fire. I had never felt anything like this before. It was like someone heating needles until they were hot as iron and then throwing it at you.”
“Think of if you open an oven and the heat rushes at you. It’s something like that, but a thousand times worse,” he said.
The court listened to a taped interview Lu gave to police several months after the disaster, and was asked on Thursday to add more details about the aftermath of the eruption.
“There were no clear instructions or plans, everyone just followed their fight or flight instinct and ran straight for the pier,” he said.
Lu said she went in the water to keep her shoes from melting into her flesh. Medical care on the ship was “very limited”, he added, and water supplies ran out as people tried to wash ash from their skin.
Lu told the court that the rash had changed her “physically and mentally”.
Before the disaster, I worked in the fashion industry. After that, he had to go away to heal and couldn’t come back. “I had a complete career change because, you know, as hard as it sounds, the fashion industry is all about looks,” she said.
a silent dark cloud
Earlier, the court heard testimony from American tourists Matthew and Lauren Urey, who were on their honeymoon and had booked a trip to the island through Royal Caribbean Cruises.
Matthew Urey said the sea was very rough during the short boat trip to the island and many passengers got seasick. He said tourists were told the level of activity of the volcano was high, which meant they couldn’t get to certain areas of the island.
“They mentioned that we would have respirators for our comfort. That’s all I remember saying about the island while we were on the boat,” he said. “They may have given some other information, but I don’t remember nothing specific.”
On the island, Urey said guides led his group to the crater rim, where they spent about 10 minutes before slowly returning.
“I remember someone yelling ‘look’ and I looked up and saw a really big black cloud coming out of the volcano. And that’s when they told us to run,” said he said.
Lauren Urey said the billowing black cloud was silent, but as she and her husband hid behind a rock, they heard a “loud crash” as the volcano erupted, then “cries for help and shouts.” screams of agony,” she said in her testimony.
Matthew Urey said he struggled to breathe as they were engulfed in heat waves which prosecutors said reached 100 degrees Celsius or more.
“I don’t know if it was steam or hot ash, but it was on us,” he said.
When the sky cleared, the survivors made their way through a thick layer of ash to reach the small inflatable boat moored at the pier.
“Some people weren’t hurt as much as others, so some people were able to get on the boat a lot easier than others. (Some people) were jumping on it and pushing others aside,” Lauren Urey said.
Since that day, the couple has undergone multiple surgeries and skin grafts.
“We wanted to have two kids, but now I’m considered high risk if I choose to have kids,” Lauren Urey said. “So it had an impact on me, my husband and our families far beyond our physical injuries,” she told the court.
The lawsuit against tourism companies
The six parties fighting the charges include three brothers who own the island, Andrew, Peter and James Buttle, and their company Whakaari Management Ltd, as well as ID Tours New Zealand Ltd and Tauranga Tourism Services Ltd.
WorkSafe prosecutor Kristy McDonald KC told court that cruise ship passengers ‘did not receive health and safety information prior to the start of the visit’ and that WML failed in its duty to take care of tourists visiting the island.
In 2019, he said WML made an annual profit of around NZ$1 million ($640,000) from tourism on the island, but there were not enough expenses to guarantee the facility security.
“WML had to understand the risks of what it was doing. He never bothered to properly understand the risks,” he said.
The Buttle brothers and WML deny the charges. In another hearing to have the charges dismissed, Buttles attorney David Neutze said the brothers had little control over touring, according to CNN affiliate Radio New Zealand.
Five organizations have already pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing, including Volcanis Air Safaris, Aerius, Kahu NZ and White Island Tours.
New Zealand’s science agency, GNS, pleaded guilty to a charge of failing to consult helicopter pilots about the risks, and one charge was dismissed.
Luxury charter operator Inflite pleaded guilty last year and was fined NZ$227,500 ($145,000) plus court costs. The charges carry a maximum fine of NZ$1.5 million (US$950,000).
The trial is expected to last 16 weeks.