World

Her ‘awe turned to fear’ when volcano erupted

Daughter and dad helped tend to injured after volcano eruption

WHAKATANE, NEW ZEALAND: The eruption was so silent that Ms Lillani Hopkins did not hear it over the hum of the boat's engines. She did not turn around until her dad whacked her.

Then she saw it. Huge clouds of ash and steam shooting into the sky. She was so excited, she grabbed her phone out of her dad's bag and hit record.

But then the plume stopped going up and started rolling out over the cliffs - and her awe turned to fear.

Just under the surface of the crater, pressure had been building for months.

Now the super-heated water, about 150 deg C, burst out in a powerful spray. The blast also contained ash, rocks and a few boulders the size of exercise balls, but it was likely the scalding water that was most deadly.

There were 47 tourists on New Zealand's White Island at the time of Monday's eruption: 24 from Australia, nine from the US, five New Zealanders and others from Germany, Britain, China and Malaysia.

Many had taken a day trip from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas. The official death toll stands at six, with police listing another nine as missing, up from the previous figure of eight.

Ms Hopkins, a 22-year-old student who has studied volcanoes, said the group's two guides told them to wear hard hats. They gave them gas masks, which the guides said they could wear if they had trouble with their breathing.

As they walked around the island, she was full of enthusiasm, and questions. She asked her guide: What do we do if it erupts? Strap on your mask and take shelter, he told her. Run to the shipping container that is over there for emergencies, it is full of supplies.

Aside from their two guides, Ms Hopkins and her dad were the only New Zealanders in their tour group. The others were from Asia, America, Europe.

Some did not speak much English.

After 90 minutes, the group got back on the boat, and was just a couple of football fields away from the shore when the volcano erupted. The crew told them to get below deck.

Then they asked for people with medical training, and Ms Hopkins and her dad, who had both trained in first aid, joined two doctors on deck.

A dinghy ferried the injured aboard, 23 in all.

She had never seen anything like it. Welts and burns that covered every inch of exposed skin.

People's faces coated in grey paste, their eyes covered so they could not see, their tongues thickened so they could not talk. Some of them still screaming.

Passengers passed her bottles of water. She rinsed out mouths, cleaned eyes and poured as much water on the burns as she could.

The boat appeared to be filled with discarded grey rubber gloves. But they were not gloves, they were husks of skin that had peeled away from people's bodies.

Many were burned even under their clothes, and Ms Hopkins needed to cut them away.

She talked to the injured, asked them questions about their vacations, trying to distract them and keep them conscious.

She began singing her church songs. She stopped for a moment, embarrassed that she was not much of singer. Somebody grabbed her leg: Please keep going.

When they finally got back to shore, Ms Hopkins said all 23 of those she helped were still breathing but does not know if they all survived.

Thirty-nine people were taken from the island that day on Ms Hopkins's boat and in helicopters.

The volcano was venting more steam and mud yesterday. Scientists said volcanic tremors were rising, too, and another eruption at White Island is possible in the next 24 hours. - AP

WORLD