A survivor of the White Island volcano eruption has criticised New Zealand authorities, saying if medical help had come sooner more people would have survived.
In an exclusive interview with Four Corners, 23-year-old Melbourne woman Stephanie Browitt has spoken of her frustration with the New Zealand response and the actions of the cruise company, Royal Caribbean.
Stephanie suffered third degree burns to about 70 per cent of her body and lost parts of her fingers in the disaster.
Her younger sister Krystal, 21, and father Paul were among 21 people who died as a result of the eruption.
When New Zealand authorities learned of the eruption official rescue helicopters didn’t go to the volcano immediately but were instead sent to the mainland town of Whakatane, 50 kilometres from the island.
Auckland Westpac Rescue Helicopters said the crew were sent to Whakatane “to await further taskings”.
Stephanie described the harrowing wait for help to arrive.
“Everyone was just on the ground. There was one person lying flat on their belly just spread out, who was screaming in pain, another person who was yelling for help,” she said.
“I remember thinking: ‘I don’t know why people are yelling, like, there’s just no one near, around us, we’re on an island in the middle of the ocean’.”
Stephanie was one of 12 people rescued by a group of local helicopter tour pilots who risked their own lives to save them.
“I’m upset at the whole situation, but I’m very angry that it took so long for the rescue to come,” Stephanie said.
“Now I realise rescue actually wasn’t coming. It was just three pilots who chose to risk their own lives to help us and if they hadn’t come, we’d all be gone,” she said.
“I know that if help had come sooner, there would probably be more people alive from our group.”
“Sometimes I wonder if my sister might have had a chance if we were found sooner,” she said.
Stephanie only found out about risk of eruption once she was on the island
Stephanie, Krystal and Paul were part of a group of 38 people from the Ovation of the Seas cruise ship on a day trip to White Island on December 9.
Her mother Marie had stayed on the ship docked in the Bay of Plenty.
Stephanie said that it was only once they reached the remote island that their guides told them the volcano alert level was at two, which is the highest level it can be before an actual eruption occurs.
“Once you’re on the island, you can’t get back off,” she said.
“I was a little concerned … but at the same time you sort of have trust that we wouldn’t be on here, they wouldn’t be running tours if they thought it was dangerous.”
Ovation of the Seas passengers were led by guides from local company White Island Tours.
Stephanie and her family reached the centre of the island — the steaming, acidic crater lake at about 2:00pm.
A photo from Krystal’s phone shows Stephanie, Paul and Krystal on the edge of the crater lake at 2:04 pm — only six minutes before the eruption.
As they walked back to the jetty where the boat was waiting for them, Krystal was at the back of the group chatting with the tour guide and taking photos.
Paul and Stephanie turned to see how far Krystal was behind them.
“That’s when we started to see some ash coming out of the volcano,” Stephanie said.
“My dad was like, ‘Look, Krystal, look, take a photo,’ because we had no idea at that point that it was dangerous or anything. We just thought, ‘cool’.
That photo retrieved from Krystal’s phone captures the moment the eruption began, showing a white and grey cloud beginning to rise from near the crater lake.
“That’s when the front tour guide, Hayden, must’ve heard us or something, I’m not sure, but he yelled, “Run!”.
As Stephanie ran, she clutched her phone, trying unsuccessfully to put her gas mask back on her face, when she was hit by a surge of ash and rock.
“It felt like a wave, like it just takes you,” Stephanie said.
“I was just knocked over. I was tumbling, rolling, for minutes. I mean it felt like forever until it stopped and then it was just burning hot,” she said
“I remember trying to stand up and it took so much energy just to stand up I remember thinking, “I can’t believe how hard this is. My legs just felt like jelly,” she said.
She managed to stand and tried walking towards the water but tumbled down a small hill and landed among a group of people.
Trapped in the volcano: How the cruise of a lifetime turned into a deadly nightmare
The agonising hour-long wait for help
“No one could move,” she said.
As Stephanie and the others waited for help surrounded by ash, the hot sun made her burns more painful.
She heard her dad call out her name and called back to him. Then everything went quiet.
“I think a lot of people gave up on screaming,” she said.
“But every 15 to 20 minutes, I’d hear my name again. My Dad was yelling out my name and I realised he was checking up on me to make sure I was awake.”
With no idea when help would arrive Stephanie tried to conserve her energy.
“I remember thinking, ‘I need to slow down my breathing or I’m not going to make it’.
The volcano kept making loud grumbling noises and Stephanie was scared it would erupt again.
It was nearly an hour after the volcano erupted that help arrived.
Injured father told pilots to take his daughter first
Pilot Mark Law from the aviation tour company Kahu Helicopters had seen the eruption from the mainland and flew his helicopter to the island to help the survivors.
“He was yelling: ‘It’s OK. It’s going to be OK. Everyone’s going to be okay, help is coming.’
“I remember thinking: ‘How much longer is this going to take? Because I don’t know how much longer I’m going be able to keep this up for.’
Soon another helicopter landed with pilots Jason Hill and Tom Storey on board and the pilots started loading victims into the helicopters.
When the pilots went to load Paul into the helicopter, he told them to take his daughter first.
“My husband died a hero,” his wife Marie said.
Stephanie was put into the front seat of Jason Hill’s helicopter and he took off back to the mainland. There were four other victims on board.
“I remember thinking, ‘Why is there no help on the helicopter?’ I imagined that there would be medics, or like it was a medical helicopter, you know? A rescue crew with all the right equipment and everything. And I remember thinking, ‘Why is there none of that on here?'” she said.
During the 20-minute ride back, Mr Hill tried to make sure Stephanie stayed awake.
“There was a point where I wanted to fall asleep. I was just rocking back and forth, and nearly just falling over, crouching over and the pilot, was like: ‘Stay awake. You’re going to be okay. Just stay awake.’
He landed at Whakatane and Stephanie was taken to hospital with life-threatening injuries.
Despite the risk of another eruption, Mr Storey had stayed on the island to search for more survivors.
He’d been there for about an hour when the Westpac search and rescue paramedics finally arrived by helicopter.
He told them there were eight deceased people on the island.
Family still doesn’t know what happened to Krystal in the eruption aftermath
Stephanie and her father were flown to Melbourne. Her father Paul died in hospital four weeks after the eruption.
Four months on from the tragedy Stephanie and her mother Marie said they still don’t know what happened to Krystal after the eruption, including how she was brought back to the mainland and when she died.
They say New Zealand authorities have given them conflicting information about whether Krystal was brought back on one of the helicopters on December 9, or if her body was one of six left on the island and recovered four days later.
“I want to know who my daughter died with,” Marie told Four Corners.
“I want to know why and if my baby suffered.”
New Zealand police have told Four Corners Krystal’s official death certificate lists the location she died as White Island, but say they are unable to provide further details.
‘If we were informed, we wouldn’t have done it’
Stephanie and her mother Marie are angry the cruise ship operator, Royal Caribbean, told the family nothing about the risks when they booked and paid for the tour.
“We didn’t sign any waivers, get any receipts, nothing,” Stephanie said.
“We were just told a two-sentence description in the tour book on Royal Caribbean about how we would be visiting White Island and be enjoying it and then a scenic boat ride that would have a lunch as well on board,” Stephanie said.
As revealed by Four Corners, legal action is being pursued against Royal Caribbean by a group of passengers and victim’s relatives.
“If we were informed of the level and that there was a lot of [volcanic] activity in the coming weeks leading up to it… we wouldn’t have done it,” Stephanie said.
Marie, who stayed on the cruise ship, agrees Royal Caribbean didn’t tell her husband and two daughters of the risk.
“They stripped me of my family and haven’t taken any accountability for it,” she said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Royal Caribbean said the company was “focused on providing care and support to passengers, their families and crew that were impacted by this event”.
“The details of the tour are the subject of two separate investigations in New Zealand which we will be fully cooperating with and we are unable to provide further details at this time.”
New Zealand Police yet to interview Stephanie
New Zealand Police are yet to interview Stephanie for their investigation, which authorities have said could take more than a year.
“The investigation is taking so long now it’s getting annoying and upsetting with how long it’s taking,” Stephanie said.
“We just want to let it out and talk about it”
Marie is also furious New Zealand police have taken photos and videos from her loved ones’ phones but haven’t provided them with the information they desperately need for closure.
“The police are yet to interview my daughter or myself. We have begged for information and asked to be interviewed to no avail,” Marie said.
“What are they waiting for, everyone to die and forget?”
In a statement NZ police said some aspects of the investigation have been delayed because of COVID-19 restrictions, including some international interviews.
They said they were working with Australian police to arrange interviews with the grieving family members.
‘I’m grateful I am alive’
Despite everything she has been through Stephanie is firmly focused on the future.
After extensive rehab she is now running and jogging.
Despite the loss of her fingers she is able to move her hands and is able to write.
“I’ve come to terms with it and I’m fully happy about it knowing that I’m grateful I’m alive,” she says speaking calmly on the phone from the rehab centre in Melbourne.
“I’m grateful for Mum, that I can be here for her and she can be here for me, that we have each other.
Stephanie is hoping to leave rehab and be home before her 24th birthday next month and is looking forward to one day pursuing a career in the arts and resuming her job at Target.
“I do look forward to going back to that, just trying to get back to normal life. I don’t feel like giving up. I do feel like continuing, doing what I want to do.”
But she doesn’t feel she can truly move forward until she knows what happened to her sister.
“We just want answers to help give us that closure,” she said.