An elderly man who miraculously survived the Whakaari / White Island tragedy – which killed 22 people, including his son – has recalled the horror that engulfed the volcanic island after the eruption.
Members of the Cozad family, from Sydney, visited White Island on December 9, 2019, while travelling around New Zealand on cruise ship Ovation of the Seas on a trip to celebrate the 20th wedding anniversary of 43-year-old Chris and his wife Bianca.
Chris and his father John, 73, toured the island. John’s wife Beverley, and Chris’ wife and two of their children opted not to.
Both men suffered serious burns in the eruption and were later repatriated to Sydney for hospital care closer to their loved ones. Chris died on December 14.
This month, John – whose family members were also warned he might die from his injuries – was able to attend the first NRL match involving his beloved Parramatta Eels since the tragedy.
In a video released by the Eels, John has recalled the eruption, while Beverley talks of her son’s death in hospital and the warning from the medical team caring for her husband that he would die too.
“There was a big, load bang and I turned around and that is when I took a couple of photos and ran around a rock and fell down on my knees and I thought ‘I will just stay here and see what happens’,” John recalled of the moment tragedy struck.
“As soon as I hit the ground these little pellets of acid [or] water … whatever . . . red hot they were . . . started hitting me in the forehead and it was just so intense that there were just thousands of them and they were bouncing off my forehead. They were just burning.
“The pellets had stopped but the ash had fallen down and it was just thick. You couldn’t see your hands in front of your face, it was so thick.
“I remember saying the Lord’s Prayer because it was so intense. I thought I was a goner. It felt like the whole world was going to fall in on you.”
Several hours earlier John and Chris Cozad, and dozens of other Ovation of the Seas passengers had prepared to head to the volcanic island off the Bay of Plenty coastline.
Several months before the family holiday, Chris had told his parents about “this beaut” trip where tourists could walk right up to a live volcano.
Beverley told the Parramatta Eels’ video crew that the days leading up to the eruption had been a “fun time”.
She was having a coffee with her husband and son in the moments before they were called to head off on the island excursion.
“I gave them both a kiss and said to Christopher ‘Now don’t go throwing your father in the lava’,” Beverley recalled of her final conversation with her son. “He says, ‘No mum’, and off they went.”
What followed was an 80-minute boat trip out to White Island.
John recalls a “little talk” about what awaited the group. Tourists were also given a hard hat and breathing apparatus for when they were on the island.
On landing on White Island, John said he was struck by the “sterilised sort of atmosphere”.
“There were no trees or grass or anything. It was just so barren,” he said. “There were sulphur fumes coming out. The volcano just looked like a big puddle of water, steam coming off it and it was quite good.”
At 2.11pm that environment proved deadly. Twenty-two people – 20 tourists and two local tour guides – would die from injuries; either on the island that day, or in hospitals in the days and weeks that followed.
Back on the cruise ship, Beverley received a phone call from a daughter back in Sydney to alert her to a volcanic eruption. She initially believed it was a false alarm.
Hours later she was reunited with her badly injured husband at Whakatāne Hospital.
“John was on a stretcher on the floor and his opening words were, ‘They cut my Parramatta jersey off’. And I assured him we’d buy another one, it didn’t matter,” Beverley recalled.
Despite their injuries, Beverley initially thought neither would die saying because they were receiving such good treatment “there must be hope”.
“Only five days in, they took me aside and said, ‘We are going to turn your son’s life support off’. That was a bit of a . . . this can’t be happening.
“With John they kept saying, ‘He probably won’t make it because of his age’. I don’t know where he got his strength from but he eventually opened an eye on Christmas Day , which was a nice Christmas present.”
She said the Cozad family had many “good memories” of Chris.
“He was a good person. A lot of people loved him.”
She added of her husband’s ongoing recovery: “We are grateful for John. It has been a long journey, but here we are.”
John suffered burns to 40 per cent of his body in the eruption.
He and Chris were avid NRL fans, going to Parramatta games together.
Interviewed by the Parramatta Eels’ video crew at the recent game, John said: “It’s been good. It really gives an old bloke a lift.”
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