2.09 PM. Tour guide Jake Milbank was watching fellow guide Kelsey Waghorn address a group of almost 20 tourists in the moon-like crater of New Zealand’s White Island. She was up to the bit of the tour about the island’s freshwater streams, and how various minerals give each a different flavour. She pointed to the water in one and explained that it tasted a bit like lemon juice, while the other contained so much iron that it tasted like blood.
2.10 PM. It was only a small group that day, mostly Australians; a few Americans. It was to be a shorter tour too. The island had been on Alert Level 2 due to unusual levels of seismic activity over the last few months, which made the crater a little more exciting for the tourists, but was just more of the same for Jake. They’d given the usual safety briefing and told everyone to keep their hardhats on at all times. Then they’d shown the group how to put on their gas masks, and told them to seek cover behind one of the island’s rocky mounds if something happened. In that case, they’d radio the skipper back on the boat and follow the streams down to the wharf where they’d be collected. It was the same old safety briefing Jake had heard a few hundred times.
2.11 PM. The second tour group was now at the crater lake, where Jake’s group had been a few minutes earlier. He was looking in that direction when he saw it. Against the clear blue sky, a grey-black puff of ash shot straight into the air. For just a moment it had the group mesmerised, all of them pointing at the dark column rising hundreds of metres straight into the air. Then they snapped back to reality. Both Jake and Kelsey began yelling at everyone to get cover. He began to run, waving the group towards some of the bigger rocky mounds nearby, trying to draw people over to him.
The day was December 9, 2019. Jake had been a tour guide for exactly one year and one day. Growing up just outside Whakatane, on New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty, he’d developed a love of the outdoors. As a kid he’d spent his days fishing and hunting, and when he finished Year 13 he applied for a job with White Island Tours. Initially he thought he was applying for a job as a deckhand, which would mean simply ferrying passengers back and forth from the island. What he didn’t realise was that he was also supposed to be doing the talking. He was a shy kid, but he thought he’d give it a crack, so he started listening to the other guides and learned the lines from them. About three months into the role, he began to relax.
On this day, though—the day he would nearly die—Jake wasn’t even meant to be there. It was his 19th birthday, and he’d taken the day off. But one of his colleagues called in sick. Jake’s boss had called that morning to see if he could come in, and Jake said “sweet as” and headed over to Whakatane’s docks to load up the boat.
By the end of the day, 22 people would be dead with another 25 injured. Jake would end up suffering burns to 79 percent of his body, with only his feet, armpits and the skin beneath his shorts spared. But he would survive—and a little more than a year on, he remains amazingly composed remembering the day of December 9, 2019.
Seconds after the first eruption, another detonation hurled a pyroclastic flow across the crater. It’s a common misconception that a volcano’s most dangerous projectile is lava, which in reality moves quite slowly and predictably. A pyroclastic flow, on the other hand, is not slow. Imagine an avalanche of ash and superheated gas, towering hundreds of metres high, bearing down on Jake’s group at 200 kilometres an hour. That was the real threat.
Just 15 seconds had passed since the first eruption. Jake hadn’t had time to think; it was all just reflex, not even processing what he was seeing. But he and the others had just reached the cover of the rocky mounds nearby—some of the best cover on the whole island, Jake says—when the sunny day turned pitch black.
“The first thing you kind of notice is how strong the gas was, even with your gas mask on,” Jake says. “And then it just got instantly hot, and everyone was screaming because it was like being in a bloody oven. Very, very hot. Very, very loud, because it was just moving so fast.
“Small rocks and chunks of ash were hitting all around us, and the wind was kind of howling. It just sounded like being in a hurricane basically, a hot hurricane.”
For nearly a minute-and-a-half Jake’s group huddled against the mound. At one point he recalls trying to open his eyes, which were immediately clogged full of ash and acidic gas. In the darkness he could hear everyone around him screaming and it felt, he says, like “a long, long time”.
“It’s just so hot, you’re just screaming for your life basically. There’s not much you can do, because if you move out from the shelter you’re going to get blown away. It’s so strong. So I just knew how hot it was, how bad we were.”
Finally the volcano relented and the flow subsided. Following the safety plan, the group stumbled towards the creek, which led them to the wharf.
“I could barely even see the creek, but once we were down in it I kind of knew where the sun, was so I could use that to keep in the right direction. As long as I stayed in the creek I knew I’d make it down to the beach.
“It was basically just an adrenaline fuelled rush to get down to the water to the boat. You couldn’t really run because of all of the ash, it was so thick. It was like walking in powdered snow. It was so thick and so deep, up towards our knees, halfway up the shin.”
As they trudged their way through the hot ash, Jake started to realise he was in bad shape. He looked down at his arms and saw the skin “hanging down it was so burned off”.
“When we got to the wharf I grabbed one of the handrails of the ladder and the skin on my palm slid off,” he remembers. “At that point it was just ‘get on the boat, get home, get to hospital’.”
Spared the worst of the eruption off the island’s coast, the boat that had ferried the groups 50 kilometres across the Bay of Plenty to White Island now sped back to collect the casualties on the wharf. Everyone was trying to get into the boat as quickly as they could, Jake remembers, but it wasn’t easy. He thinks he was probably in shock for the journey back to the wharf, but as they crowded onto the boat the pain began to set in.
“You’d get really hot, and then really cold, so they were putting those foil blankets on us and taking them off again and pouring water on our eyes, trying to get out the ash and acid.
“Touching everything, leaning against the seats or sitting down was obviously bloody painful. They’ve got the green whistles in the first aid kit, and there were two of them being kind of shared around.”
“Looking around, everyone was all pretty bad. We were all lying down and screaming for help every now and then. People screaming ‘help me’ or ‘give me water’. So that makes it a lot worse.
“I was thinking that I wasn’t as bad as some of the people. There were people screaming a lot more than others.”
He remembers the whole terrible trip back to the mainland, and being helped off the boat into an ambulance, but then only flashes of doctors and nurses before he was put into a two-week, medically-induced coma. He remembers it like going to sleep: one minute he was in hospital, surrounded by medical staff, and the next he was waking up, dazed from medication, hallucinating. But as he got his wits back he wanted to asses the damage.
“I had my sister and my mum taking photos of me, because I couldn’t really move, showing me how bad I was. They didn’t know if that was a good idea, but I was adamant,” he remembers. “I wanted to see it I guess. I saw it all, and that was when I realised how bad I was.”
In the weeks that followed he was going to the operating theatre every three or four days to get new skin grafts or have bandages changed. The first month was a blur, between the surgeries and medications. But the frequency of those operations slowed down as they had to start waiting for his donor skin sites to heal over. The pain throughout that time “was crazy, too painful to describe in words”.
And then there was hearing about the others that didn’t make it. In the days and weeks that followed bodies were recovered from the island, and others who had made it off like Jake had died in hospitals in New Zealand and Australia. One of Jake’s mentors at White Island Tours, Hayden Marshall-Inman, had died along with almost the entire group that was in the crater when the eruption had started.
“That was pretty tough,” he says, reflecting for a moment on how Hayden had shown him the ropes, given him tips, and helped him overcome his inherent shyness in front of an audience. “It was pretty tough to hear about him.”
Initially Jake and his family were warned that he may be in intensive care for four months and the hospital for up to a year, but following a gruelling series of operations and physiotherapy to rebuild his atrophied muscles he walked out after three months and three weeks.
“I’ve done better than I thought I would,” he says. “I guess I’ve always been quite a positive person. I knew that there was other people doing a lot worse than me, and there was a lot of stuff to look forward to. To begin with it was just to get out and eat some real food because the hospital food was average. And then it was get back into the bush, get back out fishing.”
Jake has had 26 operations to date, a number of which took place after leaving hospital to release the tightness of scarred skin that was prohibiting a greater range of movement. He’s got another on his badly scarred right hand in February.
While looking in the mirror these days is “pretty crazy” sometimes, Jake says his brush with death hasn’t really changed him as a person.
“I like to think it hasn’t changed me too much, in terms of my personality and what I like to do and whatnot,” he says. “Of course it’s changed my physical appearance quite a bit, but I like to not let that get in my way.”
“It’s going to be a hard day to remember for a long time I guess, because I lost close friends. But I just don’t have any bad feelings towards the island. It’s a volcano, New Zealand’s most active volcano, and they erupt I guess. I’ve been back since, not on the island, but on the boat, just sitting out off the beach. It’s a beautiful place; amazing. You have to be there to understand it.”
As told to Chris Shearer. Follow him on Twitter