I pulled ash from the throats of the White Island Volcano eruption victims – it still haunts me a year on

STARING at the huge ash cloud as it began racing over the cliff and across the water towards her, Lillani Hopkins desperately rushed for cover.

The 23-year-old New Zealand teacher and her Brit dad Geoff, 51, were on a tour boat just off shore from White Island when the volcano erupted on December 9 last year.

Lillani Hopkins

Lillani Hopkins and her dad Geoff on White Island, shortly before the eruption later that day[/caption]

They had chillingly posed for a photo together by the crater earlier that day, and left the island themselves less than half an hour earlier.

The heroic pair luckily escaped injury and went on to help the boat crew and other passengers rescue survivors – with Lillani fighting to save people with ash blocking their airways, and screaming in agony from their horrific burns.

Now she is opening up on her harrowing experience, as survivors reunite in New Zealand today to remember the victims of the devastating day last year.

The Whakaari eruption killed 22 people – including two who are missing – and left 25 more with horrific injuries – many of whom were rushed to the mainland on the same boat Lillani was on.

AP:Associated Press

Lillani and her fellow boat passengers watched as the volcano erupted in front of them[/caption]


Rescuers scrambled to try and save people on the island[/caption]

‘We never expected what we saw… It was horrendous’

Lillani, who spent much of her childhood in the UK before moving back to New Zealand after school, had taken a day trip to see the volcano with her dad that day, from their hometown of Hamilton.

They spent the morning on the island, before leaving to get back on their boat at around 2pm – minutes before the eruption.

“They were going to pull around into another bay, just around the side, so we could get a last view of the crater,” she recalls.

Lillani Hopkins

Lillani and dad Geoff had planned to go to the island for a day trip[/caption]

“Suddenly there was a commotion at the back of the boat and everyone was rushing round.

“We turned around and saw this ash cloud high up in the sky. We didn’t hear anything at all over the boat engines.

“The cloud started rolling over the hills towards us so we all got rushed inside for our safety.”

She says they’d spotted a group of people right by the crater beforehand, but they disappeared once the cloud took over the island.

“Our crew launched a dinghy and started pulling people out of the water and off the edge of the island onto our boat,” she says.

Lillani Hopkins

Lillani captured this photo as the volcano erupted[/caption]

Lillani Hopkins

The pair were rushed under cover as the ash cloud raced towards them[/caption]

“They asked if there were any doctors or first aiders to help. My dad has more extensive first aid training, and I’m a school teacher so I have the basics.

“We went to help, never expecting what we saw…It was horrendous.”

Both Lillani and Geoff have previously described their horror at witnessing the worst burns they’d ever seen.

She says: “We had to clear airways because a lot of them were blocked with ash. We took off clothing and used that, then you had to put your finger in and pull ash out.

AP:Associated Press

People onboard boats could only watch in horror[/caption]

“We used water to try and treat the burns. We had to take items of clothing off and things like watches, then try and cool the burns.

“It was also summer over here, so we had to try and keep them out of the sun and protect them from the salt water spray too.

“They’d lost multiple layers of skin so we were trying to find something to replace that… we were using clothing to cover them.”

We had to clear airways because a lot of them were blocked with ash. We took off clothing and used that, then you had to put your finger in and pull ash out.

While Geoff treated some of the more critical survivors, Lillani helped people tend to the others – many of whom were in and out of consciouness.

“People were in a lot of pain,” she says. “I’d say the adrenaline started to wear off as soon as they got on the boat. The whole way back, everyone was in severe pain.”

Once ashore, they helped paramedics get each of the survivors off before calling Lillani’s mum to assure her they were okay.

Lillani says the shock didn’t fully sink in until they got home, and she struggled to process what she’d seen in the days afterwards too.

She’s since made contact with many of the people she helped save, however, and says that has been incredible.

Getty Images – Getty

22 people tragically died when the volcano erupted[/caption]

Since the tragedy, several survivors have bravely taken to social media to share every stage their agonising recoveries, to raise awareness of the pain many burns survivors go through on a daily basis.

Here we look at some of their recoveries a year on…

‘To think we had no idea absolutely kills me inside’

Stephanie Browitt, 24, from Melbourne in Australia, visited the volcano with her dad Paul and sister Krystal last year, during a family cruise with their mum – who chose to stay behind during the outing.

Stephanie and her family were forced to run for their lives when the eruption happened while they were still fairly close to the crater, but were unable to escape the deadly blast.


Stephanie Browitt has been left with burns to 70 per cent of her body[/caption]

Stephanie managed to escape the island but suffered horrendous injuries

“We started seeing smoke coming out of the crater, and then only a few seconds later, we heard the tour guide scream ‘run!’” she told Australia’s 60 Minutes show recently.

“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 thought I was going to die.”

She was stuck on the island in agony waiting for rescue teams to find her. Tragically, her younger sister died in the blast and, one month into his battle to survive, Paul also lost his life on January 12.


Stephanie has revealed her deep scarring and burns in a series of posts online[/caption]


The moment Stephanie greeted her mum at home after her long stint in hospital[/caption]


Stephanie now needs to wear a compression mask for most of the day[/caption]


Stephanie said her legs were the last part of her body to get skin grafts[/caption]

Stephanie suffered horrific burns to 70 per cent of her body, lost parts of her fingers, and was forced to spend six months in hospital undergoing gruelling operations and skin grafts.

She’s since bravely taken to social media to share updates from her recovery, from the moment she was reunited with her mum at home, to ongoing procedures and skin grafts.


Stephanie’s sister Krystal tragically died in the eruption[/caption]

Alongside a photo of her hands in compression gloves, she revealed a snippet of the horrors she saw, writing: “When the eruption happened, I remember seeing my hands and realising how bad they were.

“My nails were hanging off, skin in shreds and also peeling off and they were black and red in colour, (blood/ash). I was told they were one of the worst burns to hands they had ever seen.”

She’s also posted photos showing how the extensive burns and scars on her legs have slowly been healing, as well as graphic images of the deep burns to her back.

Now, as the family nears the one year anniversary, Stephanie has bravely posted images from their final days together on the cruise – as a moving tribute.

“It’s been extremely hard and painful to look back at these knowing we had no idea what was to come. Cruel is all I can think of,” she wrote.

“Please enjoy every moment with your over ones. Make new memories and love every moment.”

‘You know what you’ve gotta do to survive’

Another survivor, Jake Milbank, was working on White Island and celebrating his 19th birthday when the deadly blast happened.

He ended up suffering horror burns to 80 per cent of his body and endured months on end in hospital.

Jake Milbank has been helping to raise awareness of what burns survivors go through

Jake was left with horror burns across his body[/caption]

Speaking to Newshub, he described his “fight-or-flight” response after the volcano suddenly erupted into life.

“You know what you’ve gotta do to survive and that’s all I was really thinking about doing at the time,” he said.

“(I was) just trying to stay awake, and constantly reminding myself and having others around me reminding me that …it was all gonna be all good.”

He first posted on Instagram in March, sharing a snap from his first day out from hospital and writing: “After more than three long months in hospital things are finally starting to look up as my medical team have cleared me for day leave! “


Jake shared this photo on a visit home from hospital[/caption]


Jake has opened up about his incredible recovery since[/caption]

He later revealed he’d undergone 25 operations in a post in April, as he was finally allowed home full-time, and thanked followers for giving him strength throughout.

Like Stephanie and Kelsey, he’s ensured he’s shared updates and details on his recovery with his follows from them on, including how he coped moving home in lockdown and his ongoing procedures.

He has since settled back into his daily life and enjoyed trips fishing with his family. Jake says his recovery is ultimately “going great”.

‘Our dream vacation turned into a nightmare’

More survivors have spoken of their horror experience over the last year too, including American couple Rick and Ivy Kohn Reed, who suffered major injuries as well.


Rick and Ivy Reed posed for this photo minutes before the eruption[/caption]

They shared an image of the moment they posed on the summit, just minutes before the eruption, on a GoFundMe page as part of their efforts to raise money for their medical treatment and rehabilitation.

In her first public comment after the tragedy, Ivy wrote: “This is the last picture taken of us before our lives changed forever.”

She added: “Our dream vacation turned into a nightmare that we are still trying to comprehend.”


Rick Reed (right) with brother-in-law Barry Kohn after the tragedy[/caption]


The couple are continuing their recovery out of the spotlight[/caption]

And in June the couple updated their followers on their progress, writing: “Unfortunately, due to the Covid-19 crisis, our treatment services have been suspended since mid-March 2020.

“We have been working on our home rehab program during this time. It might not seem like much to the average person, but we can each finally open water bottles, various jars, and sometimes even a 2-liter (sic) bottle of diet coke!”

Meanwhile, American newlyweds Matt and Lauren Urey described to 60 Minutes how they were forced to run and seek shelter behind a rock near the water.


Matt and Lauren Urey were caught up in the volcanic ash too[/caption]

“It was just pitch black. You couldn’t see anything in front of you, and you could just feel your skin burning, getting pelted with rocks. It was terrifying,” Matt told CBS This Morning.

He has since written on the couple’s GoFundMe page this week: “We are continuing to make progress with our recovery and are getting stronger every day.

“We still have a very long road ahead, with surgeries planned for the next almost two years, but we are well aware of how lucky we are to be here at all.”

The couple reportedly spent two months recovering in separate hospitals before returning to the US at the start of the year, and finally being released from hospital in February.

They’re now wearing compression bandages to try and minimise scarring.

Many survivors have now gathered in New Zealand for a memorial, one year on, to pay tribute to those they lost in the devastating tragedy.


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