On December 9th, 2019, the day started out hopeful and exciting. Today was the day a group of international tourists would take a sightseeing day trip to Whakaari Island (also known as White Island), an 800-acre cone volcano located 30 miles off the coast of New Zealand’s North Island.
Whakaari is a small, beautiful island in the Bay of Plenty, and is also a deadly active stratovolcano. Covered in layers from previous eruptions over many decades, Whakaari was not set for another eruption.
A privately owned by the Buttle family since 1936, it was a popular daytrip for tourists, 10,000 of whom would visit each year. They arrived by boat and by helicopter from various tour operators to explore the island and took a guided hike around the mouth of the crater. But what started off with selfies and smiles ended with an explosion that sounded a lot like “fireworks” that led to 22 deaths.
In Netflix’s latest documentary The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari and helmed by Oscar-nominated director Rory Kennedy, the film tracks the minute-by-minute account of that tourist trip with interviews with the survivors, their families, the citizens of North Island and the everyday people who rescued the survivors.
Pastor Geoff Hopkins was there with his daughter, who was studying geology and volcanic activity and thought it would be a fun surprise to treat her dad to a Whakaari tour for his 50th birthday. Jesse Langford was an Australian traveling with his family on a New Zealand cruise who admits that he and his sister sought out “enjoyable risks,” be it going black water rafting or bungee jumping off Auckland Tower. Matt and Lauren Urey, meanwhile, were honeymooning Americans, with Matt the bigger “adventure-seeker” and Lauren his more beach-oriented partner.
To learn more about the events of that fateful day, the warning signs, the power of volcanos, planetary and terrestrial geology and more, The Koalition spoke to Rosaly Lopes, NASA’s Directorate Scientist for the Planetary Science Directorate and a Senior Research Scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Dr. Lopes joined JPL as National Research Council Fellow in 1989 and, in 1991, became a JPL employee and a member of the Galileo Flight Project, a mission to Jupiter. She was responsible for observations of Jupiter’s volcanic moon Io from 1996 to 2001, using Galileo’s Near-infrared Mapping Spectrometer. During this exciting period of her career, she discovered 71 active volcanoes on Io, for which she was honored in the 2006 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records as the discoverer of the most active volcanoes anywhere.
“Volcanoes come in several different types, but a volcano of the type of Whakaari is inherently dangerous. It’s a volcano that can explode and can put out pyroclastic flows, which are flows of hot gases and ash. [They] are the [deadliest] thing a volcano can put out; so, going to that volcano was dangerous. However, the probability that something would happen when tourists were on the island was very low, but still, you’re taking a risk going there.”
Understandably, this explosion took many by surprise. But for this volcano, and for the type of eruption style involved, it was nothing out of the ordinary: Similar eruptions, though not everyday occurrences, have happened at many volcanoes all over the world, and they will continue to appear without much warning.
“In fact, I went there in 2014, just a few years before that disaster and, as a volcanologist, I was aware of the potential danger. I was watching very carefully for any signs of any change. I was planning my escape route. Taking tourists to the island was a risk. I’m not sure that every tourist going there was actually aware of the potential danger. On the one hand, you want people to go to places that are wonderful, and they can really appreciate nature [but] on the other hand, there are places that are pretty dangerous right now.”
19-year-old Australian college student, Jesse Langford was on a 16-day cruise with his family when they decided to take a sightseeing day trip to Whakaari Island. After taking photos of the massive crater as it belched up steam and plumes of sulfuric gas, Langford, his father Anthony, 51, mom Kristine, 46, sister Winona, 17, and the rest of the group of 21 tourists were heading back to their boat on a nearby beach when the volcano awoken.
The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari showcases this risk within minutes when after a day of exploration, someone yelled, “Hey, look at that!” just as a plume of smoke exploded out of the crater. In mere moments, Whakaari became the most dangerous place as the volcano burst with scalding smoke and ash that covered the island and—at a temperature of approximately 392 degrees Fahrenheit.
At that moment Whakaari became a pressure cooker producing a violent, speedy decompression event. The liquid water flashes to steam, expanding its volume 1,700 times in a heartbeat which is enough to shatter rocks and break the ground. Even a steam blast is lethal if you stand too close but the flying rocks, wet debris jets, and scorching air proved deadly as it boiled the skin.
In this moment it is hard to flee or even process what’s happening. The majority of Whakaari ‘s eruption was a collection of impulsive bursts, each just tens of seconds long. The whole thing was over in two minutes.
A somewhat similar steam blast happened at Japan’s Mount Ontake in 2014, killing 63 hikers and just like Whakaari there’s weren’t any definitive warning signs. “There are many different types of volcanoes. Volcanoes like those in Hawaii and Iceland are pretty gentle on the whole and so they’re not explosive. They sometimes put out small lava flows called Lava Fountains. There are volcanoes like Stromboli in Italy where they have small explosions that just send out fragments of lava, we call Bombs, and as long as you stay out of range, you’re fine. The types that are really dangerous are the potentially explosive volcanoes [like] Whakaari. There was nothing someone could have said that morning.”
“In [Rescue from Whakaari] there was a change in the activity. Maybe some people stayed to look at it or take pictures. If there is a change in activity like that, you just have to get out of there, but even then, they might not have survived. It’s a matter of the timing and the Pyroclastic Flow and whether you can get away in time. There was a helicopter pilot who actually mentioned he ran to the ocean and dove in and that’s actually what I would have done, but even then, the Pyroclastic Flow is going above your head. So, he had to hold his breath until he saw a little bit of light and then he came up to breathe. That type of Pyroclastic Flow is so deadly.”
Despite the dangers, people from New Zealand and Australia trying to help without hesitation also serves as testimony to human nature’s innate generosity. Guided by survivors — men and women who were tested in ways they never imagined — as well as the courageous and quick-thinking ordinary citizens who sprang to action that day, it is easy to understand the value of our human connection and how critical it was at that moment.
Whether it was Matt and Lauren literally holding onto each other throughout the explosion, Jesse’s search for his family, or the medical staff working to save lives, The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari is perseverance through the pain. Ngaroahiahi Patuwai Maangi and Mark Inman, whose grandson and brother, respectively, were guides who perished on Whakaari, represent the heartbreak of families left behind to pick up the pieces of the lives lost.
To learn more about The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari and volcanos on other planets, check out our full interview in the video above.