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The Eruption Of Instagram Island

New Zealand's White Island is an 800-acre fantasyland that has beckoned Hollywood filmmakers and everyday selfie-seekers alike. It is also an active volcano. This is the story of the day when the worst-case scenario became real.


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White Island

Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images

On the aft deck of the Phoenix, a 60-foot catamaran, Geoff Hopkins put an arm around his daughter and stared with apprehension and excitement at the craggy rock that loomed out of the sea directly ahead of them. White Island was just the way he remembered it: exotic, imposing, alien. They were 30 miles off the coast of New Zealand but felt farther—as if they'd motored into an otherworldly realm. Wisps of steam and toxic gases wafted into the noonday sky.

Skipper Paul Kingi killed the engines and slipped an anchor beneath the waves, bringing the boat to rest a hundred yards offshore. From here the tourists who'd paid for a half-day excursion to the volcano would be ferried on an inflatable dinghy. But first a few precautions: Tour guides began distributing hard hats and gas masks. White Island was a volcano, after all. As Hopkins stepped onto solid ground, he caught the whiff of sulfur dioxide and he sensed the faint rumble of vibrations from deep within the earth.

An affable evangelical pastor, Hopkins had been living with his family a few hours away, in the city of Hamilton, for the past five years. He'd made the trip to White Island once before, 24 years earlier, during a backpacking excursion, and had never gotten the experience out of his mind. This time his daughter, Lillani, 22, had surprised him with tickets for the tour. They were celebrating his 50th birthday.

The pair scampered up a dusty path, trailing a young woman from the tour company, who led the group for half a mile across a gently rising plain of volcanic rock. Along the way, they stopped to snap photos of the strange features of the place: puffing gas vents in the ground, a stream that flowed with scalding water, pillars of yellow sulfur, and lava rocks embedded with glittering crystals and black volcanic glass. The guide warned them not to stray from the trail—one false step, she said, could send a person plunging through soft ground into scorching water. Then she pointed to a shipping container designated as a shelter of last resort in the event that the volcano erupted. Hopkins wondered whether any new precautions had been put into practice since he last visited. The tour guide was unaware of any, Hopkins said, but told the group not to worry. She explained that scientists monitored White Island around the clock.

After 45 minutes of hiking, they arrived at a promontory 60 feet above a strange bright-green lake—its cartoon color owing to a toxic cocktail of sulfur, algae, and bacteria. The landscape made for stunning photos, and the water hissed at the edges, where hot gases rose to the sky in a dense haze. Up to this point, Hopkins and his fellow tourists had been merely lugging their gas masks—now they wiggled them on, fitting the rubber over their noses and mouths, breathing deeply to find clean air. They took pictures of the lake and of themselves, looking like explorers of distant worlds, outfitted for danger. But that December day was gorgeous and serene. Whatever peril the place might have posed wasn't obvious. Not to them.

Eventually they followed a path that led to the sea. That's where, around 1:30 in the afternoon, Hopkins noticed a second catamaran offshore: A new group had arrived for the afternoon tour. He and Lillani were ferried back to the Phoenix, where he took out his iPhone and snapped a parting picture. Enlarging the image, he could make out a line of people—indistinct black specks—gathered high on the crest, along the edge of the lake. “Hey, you can see the other group up there,” said Kingi, the skipper. The time stamp on the image read 2:07 p.m.

Four minutes later, Hopkins heard shouts from fellow passengers gathered on the starboard side of the Phoenix. He rushed over from the aft deck to see an enormous black-white-and-gray cloud billowing over the crater. Suddenly the plume turned sideways as if headed straight for the boat. Passengers screamed and ducked beneath their seats. In an instant, the 47 people still on the island were enveloped in a boiling cloud of gas and debris. Kingi cranked the wheel, aiming the bow back toward the volcano, and he punched the throttle. They had to help.

Hayden Marshall-Inman, a veteran guide who was leading a tour of White Island when the volcano erupted. (Courtesy of Mark Inman)

Hayden Marshall-Inman, a veteran guide who was leading a tour of White Island when the volcano erupted.

The eruption of White Island on December 9 was a shock but not a surprise. The volcano had been stirring with intention for thousands of years. It's been easy for visitors to downplay the dangers. Or misjudge them altogether. When Captain James Cook sailed by the island in 1769, he gave the rocky crater the name White Island because he mistook the puffs of volcanic steam for cloud formations. The indigenous Maori, on the other hand, gave it a more apt moniker. They called the place Te Puia O Whakaari, “the dramatic volcano,” and believed that spirits had summoned the gift of fire from deep beneath the island, granting it to their ancestors.

Imposing as White Island seems from the surface of the water—rising more than a thousand feet out of the ocean—the rocky monolith is merely the cap of an enormous mountain that's more than twice as tall beneath the waves. In 1914, after locals began mining sulfur on the island, an eruption buried 10 miners in a landslide that spared only the company's cat. Since then the volcano has been spewing periodic blasts of steam, gas, lava, and ash—keeping volcanologists in a continuous state of alert.

All that geothermal agitation hasn't stopped White Island from becoming one of New Zealand's biggest tourist magnets. After the sulfur company that owned the island shut down, the place was purchased by a family from Auckland, the Buttles, who looked around the temperamental moonscape and glimpsed opportunity. They'd sell visitors on the chance to tour a live volcano. In 1990 that business idea really took off when a couple, Peter and Jenny Tait, bought exclusive marine landing rights from the Buttles and established White Island Tours in the town of Whakatane, now considered the gateway to the island. The Taits secured a fleet of high-speed boats, opened a beachfront hotel called White Island Rendezvous, and began promoting the volcano as a world-unique attraction.

White Island, the volcanologists argued, constituted what was perhaps the most volatile 800-acre playground on earth.

In a nation that practically invented high-risk adventure travel—from bungee jumping off cliffs to hiking across crevasse-ridden glaciers—New Zealanders weren't ones to look askance at this sort of tour. Other volcanoes around the world had opened to tourists, but few were as accessible as White Island, where visitors are practically deposited at the crater. In other words, exploring the oozing, steaming netherworld doesn't require an arduous climb up a mountain—it's as easy as stepping in and out of a boat.

The island is also a visual jaw-dropper—a fact not lost on the thousands of tourists who've come, in recent years, with social media in mind. They post pics of themselves in hard hats and gas masks, posed beside brilliant yellow sulfur pillars, or near steaming vents in the ground, or in front of the green “acid” lake. Those crowds of visitors followed in the footsteps of Hollywood directors who shot scenes for movies like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and Mulan on the steam-shrouded island. Cruise lines signed on to facilitate more visitors. By 2017, when the Taits sold White Island Tours to a holding company operated by the local Maori tribe, the volcano was pulling in 17,000 visitors a year.

Of course, some experts regarded the whole enterprise as a disaster waiting to happen. White Island, the volcanologists argued, constituted what was perhaps the most volatile 800-acre playground on earth. If the volcano ever exploded, it would likely do so without warning, sending molten rock and superheated steam in every direction. Anybody who happened to be visiting the crater would almost certainly die. Boosters downplayed the risk, arguing that the chances of such a calamity were small. Plus, wasn't the danger a factor in visiting the island, anyway? Weren't at least some tourists after the adrenaline rush that comes from confronting nature at its wildest and rawest? Wasn't that what New Zealand was all about?

The terrifying blast, as glimpsed by visitors who’d left moments before the explosion. (Michael Schade)

The terrifying blast, as glimpsed by visitors who’d left moments before the explosion.

Nobody was keeping closer tabs on White Island than Nico Fournier. One of the world's most seasoned volcano watchers, the French-born Fournier had learned early in his career that to study volcanoes is to prepare for disaster. He was stationed part-time on the lush Caribbean island of Montserrat in 2007 when the Soufrière Hills volcano erupted, blanketing the region in lava and ash. Two years later he organized the evacuation of villages during a spate of renewed activity.

Now, as the lead volcanologist at GNS Science, New Zealand's main geological institute—which manages GeoNet, a monitoring program for volcanoes and other potential geological disasters—Fournier is tasked with keeping track of White Island's rumblings. To do so, his staff maintain a battery of sensors in the crater, as well as solar-powered cameras, gas detectors, and a Global Positioning System that measures ground deformations. They also conduct flyovers with drones and manned aircraft, and they visit the island often to take samples and measurements. Day and night, they're trying to understand what the volcano could be up to—what it could be preparing to do.

In April 2016 they watched as the water level in the gaseous lake dropped suddenly. Then, for 90 minutes that evening, the volcano spewed green ash across the crater. Had the same blast occurred during the daytime, the results could have been catastrophic. GeoNet experts noted in a report that they had found “hundreds of ballistics per square meter”—lava and rocks thrown out by the volcano—“around the tourist track at Whakaari.” In late September of that year, a smaller explosion happened, also at night. Fournier says those eruptions were “eye-openers” that underscored the unpredictability of White Island. This prompted serious discussion in the scientific community about whether tourists should be allowed on the island at all. The big risk, in Fournier's view, was that tour groups on White Island were permitted to get dangerously close to the vents that would be the source of any eruption. “Those who died at Mount St. Helens were kilometers away,” Fournier said, referencing the notorious Washington State eruption that killed 57 people in 1980. “At White Island, even a minor eruption could have devastating consequences.”

For three years the volcano sat mostly silent. Fear subsided until last June—six months before December's big blast—when White Island began giving off new signs of agitation. Suddenly, GeoNet detected 1,900 tons of sulfur dioxide pouring from vents in the surface called fumaroles—three times the normal daily discharge. Officials had never seen anything like it.

The data suggested the possibility that magma was rising to the surface, superheating groundwater and mixing steam with sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and other toxic gases. In a worst-case scenario, those gases, long kept under pressure, would expand and force their way explosively through the vents. “It's the same thing that happens when you shake a Champagne bottle and open the cork,” Fournier explained. He and his team adjusted their four-level public warning scale, escalating the threat from Level 1 to Level 2—from “minor volcanic unrest” to “heightened volcanic unrest.” As always, they announced the elevated risk by inundating local media and contacting White Island Tours and the several helicopter-tour agencies that visit the volcano.

Yet it was impossible for anybody to know exactly what might happen, or when. Or if anything notable would occur at all. Alerts of this kind had been issued before, and no explosions followed. For the Maori trust, which had recently taken over a lucrative tour business, the clues that something might be happening underground seemed insufficient to cancel the trips. The science was inexact. Who could be sure? Before long the emissions subsided and the threat level dropped.

Four months later, on November 18, magma beneath White Island's crater appeared to be on the move again. “We saw an increase in tremors, indicating that we've got things happening underground,” Fournier said. GeoNet again raised the threat level.

From above, the volcano had changed too, said George Walker, a Cessna pilot in Whakatane who has flown tourists to White Island for a decade. He'd been over the island more than 6,000 times throughout the years, and he told me that in December it had grown obvious to him that the volcano was stirring. “There was a lot more steam visible,” Walker said.

In the meantime, Ovation of the Seas, a 1,138-foot cruise ship operated by the Miami-based Royal Caribbean Cruises, was steaming toward New Zealand. Carrying about 4,000 passengers on a 12-day South Pacific amble, the liner had left Sydney, Australia, on December 4 and docked in Tauranga, on the Bay of Plenty, on the evening of December 8.

The cruise line offered three onshore activities for the next day: a visit to the Lord of the Rings' Hobbiton film set, a white-water rafting expedition, or a trip to White Island.

For years, Royal Caribbean and other cruise lines seemed disinclined to actively promote the volcano trips. But in recent years, Royal Caribbean had begun selling tickets on board its vessels to visit the volcano, encouraging passengers to take advantage of one of New Zealand's “epic” adventures. “Gas masks help you get near roaring steam vents, bubbling pits of mud, hot volcanic streams and the amazing lake of steaming acid,” the online promotion breathlessly promised.

“Money changed it,” the tour pilot, George Walker believes. “They were selling those tickets and making a big profit.”

As White Island's geothermal activity ramped up and the alert level was raised, White Island Tours sought to warn would-be visitors with a new notice on its website. “There is the potential for eruption hazards,” it posted. “Passengers should be aware that there is always a risk of eruptive activity regardless of the alert level. White Island Tours follows a comprehensive safety plan which determines our activities on the island at the various levels.”

But few passengers on board Ovation of the Seas would necessarily have known to check White Island Tours' website, and Royal Caribbean staffers seem to have volunteered no information to those signing up. “My sister had no real idea of the increased danger that had been reported, and would have expected that…Royal Caribbean would have advised [her] if there were real concerns,” said the brother of one passenger who decided to visit White Island on December 9.

In addition, White Island Tours told its clients little or nothing beyond what it had already published on its site. “There was no specific briefing in Whakatane regarding the raising of the Level 1 to 2,” Geoff Hopkins said. He told me that he would not have been dissuaded even if he'd known: He and his family had skied down New Zealand's 9,000-foot Mount Ruapehu during Level 2 warnings, Hopkins points out, “so it was never a concern for us.” But at least one Royal Caribbean passenger was reportedly so unsettled after reading online about the heightened activity that he backed out of going—and only then, after he questioned Royal Caribbean, did a cruise line staffer acknowledge the warning level had been raised.

The 38 cruise ship passengers who'd signed up to visit White Island—undeterred by or unaware of the rumbling afoot—boarded a catamaran in Whakatane with four tour guides. One of those tour leaders was Hayden Marshall-Inman, a gregarious 40-year-old outdoorsman who had been taking people onto the crater for a decade. Marshall-Inman was a frequent traveler and an adventurer. He'd worked for many years as a waterfront director at a YMCA camp in Maine. He had recently gotten his skipper's license, which meant that more and more he was piloting the boat to White Island rather than leading the tours on the volcano. But December was peak tourist season in the area, the cruise ship had just pulled into Tauranga, and he'd gotten a last-minute call to guide a group.

Marshall-Inman understood the mathematics of risk. He believed that the more he visited White Island, the greater the chance that he'd encounter an eruption. Still, he downplayed the hazard. He indicated in his diary that this tour would mark his 1,111th trip, and so far the worst thing he'd seen hadn't even occurred on the volcano. In 2016 a fire reportedly broke out on a White Island Tours catamaran. As flames tore through the craft, Marshall-Inman pulled his boat alongside and helped passengers to safety.

At 1:15 p.m., Marshall-Inman landed ashore with his group and led them toward the lake. Meanwhile a group visiting via helicopter had also arrived on the island with their pilot. All told, there were 47 people on White Island. The day was bright; the mood was calm. After reaching the green water, Marshall-Inman's group milled about for 20 minutes, taking photos with their phones and peppering their guide with questions about volcanology, local history, and Maori legend. Marshall-Inman prided himself on his deep knowledge of the site. This part he had done hundreds of times. It was the next part that he'd never experienced.

Suddenly, from the rear of the lake, several short pulses of steam burst skyward from fumaroles. The spray rose hundreds of feet. This was not normal.

Seconds later, White Island exploded. A colossal spume of steam, toxic gases, and pulverized rocks, superheated by magma, shot up more than 10,000 feet. The shock wave hurled the grounded helicopter almost 900 yards from its landing pad.

As the black-gray-and-white wall of debris fell, it seemed to turn and sweep across the island. It moved like an avalanche, 20 to 30 miles an hour, overtaking Marshall-Inman and the group of people he had with him, swallowing them in a hellish cloud. It blew past them in several seconds, but the effect was catastrophic: Fournier estimates the temperature inside the cloud would have been between 200 and 390 degrees.

Marshall-Inman and most of his group—the ones closest to the site of the eruption—didn't stand a chance. Some might have been killed instantly by the pressure wave of the eruption. Others would have asphyxiated after the blast knocked the air out of their lungs, causing them to reflexively draw in superheated gases that incinerated their respiratory tracts. “Hopefully it was sudden,” says Fournier.

At the moment of the blast, the difference between who lived and who died largely came down to happenstance. Could they find shelter of some kind—a boulder, a gully, a sulfur pillar—when the cloud passed over them? Two foreign tourists who had arrived on the helicopter that now lay mangled by the water's edge were standing on the shore when the pyroclastic surge swept toward them. Stories about what happened next later reached the Cessna pilot George Walker. “They were going, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ ” he said. “Their pilot told them to jump into the sea. They had no injuries whatsoever.” Two fellow passengers, who failed to move as quickly, were horribly burned. Nobody on the island managed to take refuge inside the shipping container—White Island Tours' last-ditch safety measure.

On the Phoenix, the skipper gunned the powerful twin engines and headed for Whakatane. Some victims had faded into unconsciousness; others were going into shock.

Just offshore, on the deck of the Phoenix, where the last visitors to leave the island watched the disaster, a young guide, bewildered and panicky, ordered everyone inside. Their training hadn't prepared them for this, Hopkins thought.

Skipper Paul Kingi turned the catamaran around and sped back to the island. Fearing another eruption, he didn't anchor; he just motored slowly while the guides lowered the inflatable dinghy into the bay. Before long, a few of the young tour-company staffers were racing toward the jetty. Tourists on the island were staggering out of the cloud.

Hopkins's guide, meanwhile, rummaged through cupboards and retrieved a few first aid kits. Hopkins said that he and his daughter could help, and the tour guide thrust the medical supplies into their hands. Then father and daughter waited on the aft deck for the first boatload of the injured to arrive.

When the dinghy returned, the impact of the disaster was made vivid. The injuries were frightful. The first survivors climbed aboard without assistance—“Adrenaline is a hell of a drug,” one emergency physician who later treated the victims would say—but their faces, legs, and hands were covered with burns the likes of which Hopkins had never seen. Skin from noses and chins was dripping off, like candle wax. Some were screaming; others were silent; several moaned, “I'm burning.”

Law strapped on his gas mask and stepped from the helicopter before plodding across the moonscape littered with burned and bleeding victims.

The wounds were raw, red, and deep. Hopkins could smell the charred flesh and realized that the bandages and ointments he was holding would be useless. They needed water to help relieve the agony of the survivors. He quickly organized the able-bodied passengers to form a line to the Phoenix's freshwater tanks; bottles and emptied first aid containers sloshing with water were passed up and down while Hopkins and his daughter dribbled the liquid over burns. Clothing had provided protection in some cases but not in others. Hopkins lifted up the blouse of a woman who complained that her back hurt: He found fist-size blisters that covered her skin. The superheated steam had left the shirt undamaged—but scalded her flesh.

Within 13 minutes, the dinghy took 23 survivors from White Island to the Phoenix. When it seemed clear that nobody else had made it to the shoreline, the skipper gunned the powerful twin engines and headed for Whakatane. Some victims had faded into unconsciousness; others were going into shock. Hopkins and his daughter took scissors from the first aid kits to cut off the soaked clothes of some survivors, covering them with blankets, jackets, and towels—anything they could find to keep them warm.

As they raced to Whakatane, a Coast Guard vessel appeared and pulled alongside the Phoenix. Kingi slowed his boat, and a team of paramedics came aboard to begin helping. Then Kingi dropped the throttle and sped on toward the wharf, where ambulances were gathering.

The desolate landscape, thick with ash, in the aftermath of the disaster. (Michael Schade)

The desolate landscape, thick with ash, in the aftermath of the disaster.

Mark Law was driving south along the coast from Tauranga at 2:11 p.m. when he spotted the huge plume out at sea, rising over White Island. A rangy 48-year-old former New Zealand military officer with years of experience in African war zones, Law realized what he was seeing. He owned Kahu NZ, a helicopter company that runs volcano tours from Whakatane Airport. The veteran pilot knew that the crater would have been filled with tourists and guides and understood that there would be many casualties. He also recognized that he could help. Law raced to the airport.

As he drove, he listened to the chatter on his police-band radio, learning that rescue teams were being held up for fear of a second eruption. When he arrived at the airport, Law didn't hesitate. He grabbed his gas mask, climbed into his five-seat Airbus AS350 A-Star helicopter, and fired up the engine. The rotor began to whirl. He had no permission from civil aviation authorities, no clearance from anybody, to do much of anything. But he wasn't about to wait. Soon, Law was choppering toward the volcano at about 100 miles an hour. A second A-Star, manned by two younger colleagues, Jason Hill and Tom Storey, flew behind him.

Twenty minutes later Law approached the island. A pillar of gas and ash still towered in the air over the lake, but enough of the cloud had dispersed to reveal that the eruption had transformed the crater into a monochromatic wasteland. He brought his helicopter in low and, from 200 feet, could see people lying on the ground. He found a clear spot to land, halfway up the crater, and eased the chopper to the ground. Law strapped on his gas mask and stepped from the helicopter, sinking to his shins in ash the consistency of talcum powder. He plodded across a moonscape littered with burned and bleeding victims. Some moaned for his help.

Then Law spotted a friend of his: Hayden Marshall-Inman. He lay unresponsive in a stream. Law gently moved his body out of the water and placed it on the bank. He counted seven more people, dead, in a nearby cluster. Those left alive struggled to communicate. “Help me,” a few whispered. They'd ingested huge amounts of ash, and the atmosphere was so impregnated with sulfur dioxide that it was hard for them to breathe, let alone talk.

High above the calamity, George Walker circled in his Cessna 172, monitoring the volcano for signs of a second eruption, while on the ground Law, along with Hill and Storey, carried the incapacitated survivors to their helicopters. They loaded the victims carefully, five to a chopper. Their flayed skin came off in the pilots' hands.

By now, another helicopter pilot, Tim Barrow, had swooped in and retrieved two more victims. Soon, Law and his colleagues were airborne. With White Island at their backs, they raced to the mainland.

At Whakatane Hospital, Kelly Phelps, a Tennessee-born, Georgia-raised senior emergency physician who'd lived in New Zealand for 10 years, had raised the alarm the moment she heard that White Island had detonated. She'd visited the island in 2010 and knew its potential for destruction; she called the dispatcher and told her to activate the hospital's mass-casualty plan.

“Get everybody on the list here as soon as possible,” she said.

“Is this a drill?” the operator asked.

“No, this is not a fucking drill,” Phelps barked. “A fucking volcano is erupting.”

Phelps changed into her scrubs; checked medical supplies; organized doctors, nurses, and pharmacists into teams; and waited outside the ambulance bay doors for the victims to arrive. The first helicopter, piloted by Law, touched down on a landing pad beside the hospital at 4:09 p.m. The survivors continued to pour in—on choppers piloted by Hill, Storey, and Barrow, and via ambulance after the Phoenix docked and offloaded its passengers. Law then refueled his chopper, and as he prepared to return to the volcano, he was told by emergency services to stand down. The island was too dangerous; the whole area was being sealed off.

In the emergency room, Phelps, joined by other senior doctors, including an Oregon transplant named Matthew Valentine, performed triage, injecting morphine and fentanyl into calf muscles and spraying ketamine into nasal passages to dull the victims' agony. They bound their blistering wounds in kitchen plastic wrap to lessen the pain. “Your nerves are exposed,” Valentine explained. “The slightest breeze is going to hurt, so you put the clean wrap on and later use dressings impregnated with non-adherent silicone.”

An immediate danger was swelling respiratory tracts and lungs: Anyone caught in the gaseous cloud would have inhaled superheated gas and steam, and even those whose skin seemed relatively unflayed could die quickly of suffocation. Doctors moved through the intensive care unit, placing breathing tubes down throats, comforting and reassuring those who remained conscious. Several died within hours. Most were airlifted or taken by ambulance to burn units across New Zealand and Australia. Twenty-two of the survivors were in critical condition, some with third-degree burns covering up to 95 percent of their bodies.

Then the focus shifted to the eight bodies left behind. For 72 hours Fournier and his GeoNet team monitored the volcano around the clock, determining that it had a “50–50” chance of erupting again. With this in mind, and with families of the dead clamoring for action, three days after the eruption, eight members of New Zealand Special Forces, six men and two women, set out on rubber dinghies from the New Zealand naval ship Wellington to retrieve the bodies. Drone imagery had pinpointed the location of six of the dead.

As the recovery team, wearing gas masks and hazmat suits, moved across the crater, Fournier remained on the Wellington, watching through high-powered binoculars for signs of volcanic activity. A powerful rainstorm four nights earlier had washed away the ash, turning the surface a sulfurous yellow-green. The teams swiftly recovered the six corpses, evacuating them in nets dangling from helicopters. Two bodies, however—those of Hayden Marshall-Inman and Australian teenager Winona Langford, whose parents also died in the blast—were still missing.

Two days later, Senior Sergeant Karl Wilson, a forensic specialist with the New Zealand police, descended onto the island in a Kahu NZ helicopter with three other police officers. A second chopper brought in four more officers. The precautions they'd taken to brave the island were elaborate. Each man carried on his back a 40-pound cylinder of compressed air, allowing him 90 minutes on the island. They all wore filtered face masks and three layers of protective clothing. In the event of an eruption, thin cotton undergarments would prevent the superheated air from fusing their chemical-resistant suits to their skin. They wore leather boots covered with chemical-proof booties, and surgical gloves covered by acid-proof gloves, with acid-proof tape sealing the gaps between apparel and skin. Cotton-wool hoodies covered mountaineering hard hats that would offer some protection from flying lava rocks. All had shaved their facial hair to prevent the seal of their full facial masks from breaking. Wilson carried a GPS tracker and a meter to monitor levels of oxygen and sulfur dioxide.

The police teams landed at the crater's midpoint and followed the streambed where chopper pilot Mark Law had encountered Marshall-Inman's corpse on Monday. Sulfur dioxide levels read dangerously high, and wisps of gas floated in the air. The team waded through the stream, filled with muddy sediment, poking through the brown slurry with steel probes in search of buried bodies. “It was like walking through a swamp,” Wilson said, “except the water was like battery acid.” After more than an hour of futile probing through swirling eddies and sludge, they climbed back into the helicopters. It was almost certain, Wilson believed, that torrential rain had washed Marshall-Inman and Langford into the Bay of Plenty.

The Maori, in honor of the lost victims, declared a rahui in the eastern bay, banning all vessels, as well as swimmers and surfers, from the water for a week. It was a way to respect the whanau, the bereaved families, and protect the mauri, or life force, of the area where the dead were at rest. Later they would honor Hayden Marshall-Inman, the free-spirited Kiwi who knew the volcano better than perhaps anyone else, recognizing him as the “guardian” of Te Puia O Whakaari.

One month after the recovery mission, I met George Walker at Whakatane Airport and we flew toward White Island in his four-seat Cessna. The sky was hazy over the Bay of Plenty, and at first we had difficulty spotting the volcano. But soon the air cleared and the rock appeared ahead of us, throwing up puffs of steam. We circled, and between the rugged crater walls I could spy the algae-covered lake.

After the eruption, Nico Fournier had told me, the water had depressurized and drained almost completely, but now the basin had refilled. “We're going to see the remains of the helicopter now,” Walker said, passing low over the crater so I could glimpse the wrecked aircraft, which rested near an abandoned fertilizer factory, two of its three rotor blades blown off. “The eruption pushed 800 kilograms 800 meters,” Walker said. “It was essentially a bomb going off.” I caught a whiff of sulfur, and the pilot banked, exposing the green-yellow volcanic plain, crisscrossed by hiking trails. I had a clear view of the path that the gas-and-steam cloud had followed, enveloping more than 40 unsuspecting people in fire and darkness.

Back in Whakatane—a laid-back fishing and beach town set against jungled hills, where 40 percent of the population is Maori—the mood had shifted over the past weeks from remembering the victims to circling the wagons. Ngati Awa Holdings, the Maori company that had purchased White Island Tours in 2017, had seen the value of its investment drop to near zero and now faced the prospect of a long legal battle. The company is protected from civil suits by a 1974 law that guarantees full medical coverage for employees and tourists injured in accidents but shields those responsible from punitive damages. (Some Kiwis say that New Zealand's adventure-travel industry, freed from having to worry about lawsuits, took off as a result.)

But WorkSafe New Zealand, an administrative and prosecuting body established after a mining disaster in 2013, could still press criminal charges—if it determined that the tour company had recklessly ignored safety precautions. “If you're going to throw somebody out of an airplane with a parachute, you have to make damned sure they know what they're doing,” says Bill Hodge, an attorney based in Auckland who has worked in employment law for nearly five decades. “You have a duty to minimize the risk.” WorkSafe, he said, faced “a lot of public pressure” from New Zealand's media, government officials, and family members to investigate the White Island case. (Officials at WorkSafe did not respond to requests for comment.)

I asked Tracey Hook, the chief executive officer of Ngati Awa Holdings, why White Island Tours continued to send tourists to the volcano despite the raised alert level and whether its staffers told clients about the elevated geothermal activity. “While the relevant authorities are investigating, it is inappropriate for us to answer questions on the events of 9 December 2019 or our operations,” she wrote back. “Thanks in advance for your understanding.”

As for Royal Caribbean's exposure, Bill Hodge examined the waiver that the company obliged passengers to sign absolving the company from any blame for injury or death and found it “pretty ironclad.” But Royal Caribbean could still be vulnerable to lawsuits, he said, if a court found that there was “no informed consent”—that is, if the company withheld information on danger from passengers who chose to visit White Island. (Royal Caribbean did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Hayden Marshall-Inman lived with his father, Alan, a few hundred yards from Ohope Beach, an idyllic surfing spot just down the coast from Whakatane. When I visited their duplex apartment, I found the bereaved father looking pensively through the living room window toward White Island, its full view blocked by the fronds of a palm tree.

A tanned and slender man in his 60s, the elder Marshall-Inman had been a tour guide on the volcano for five years, passing the job on to his son in 2009. “Hayden adored it,” he told me. “He had a love for New Zealand, a love for the island, a love for mentoring and being around people.” I asked Marshall-Inman if he thought that it was time for the government to stop trips to White Island. “We want tourists to come back,” he said. “If there's a car accident, we don't stop driving. In 36 years [of organized tours], this is the first fatality we've had. It's not a bad record.” Hayden, he said, would want that too.

Geoff Hopkins, the Hamilton minister who, along with his daughter, Lillani, was one of the last tourists to leave White Island and then tended to the victims on the boat, remains troubled by the horrors he observed that day. A month after the eruption, the shirt he was wearing hangs unused in his wardrobe, still reeking of ash and sulfur, though he's washed it a dozen times. His expensive work boots and camera bag sit in a corner of the garage, untouched since December 9. “I need to clean them, but I don't want to deal with the smell, which triggers the memory,” he said. “I'll get to it over time.”

For Lillani, small things—a walk past a smelly drain, a view of the sea—bring the images back. “I'm still stuck there,” she told me. Neither blames White Island Tours for the deadly eruption, and neither would rule out a trip to another active geothermal zone at some point. “We knew what we were doing. It was a live volcano,” Hopkins said. “Everyone knew the risk.”

Joshua Hammer is the author of ‘The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery, and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird.’

A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2020 issue.

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This post originally appeared on GQ and was published April 27, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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