White Island eruption survivors share terrifying survival stories

A Kiwi woman who survived the Whakaari White Island eruption has shared her terrifying and courageous story on camera for the first time.

Kelsey Waghorn was one of two Kiwis who survived. The other, Jake Milbank, has since returned to the volcano he still loves and respects.

Both were tour guides on December 9, the day it erupted, causing the deaths of 21 people and injuring many more. 

Waghorn and Milbank were walking back to the wharf with their group when White Island unleashed.

"We ran for cover, time slowed down, it felt like it was taking minutes, but it was seconds," Waghorn said.

They clambered onto an inflatable dinghy and then onto a nearby boat.

"I remember looking at my arm and seeing my skin hanging off, and my hands, I went to grab one of the rails, and the skin on my palm just slid off," Milbank said.

On the tortuous journey home to the mainland, they were kept conscious by other passengers.

When paramedics met them, the pain killers were no relief at all and some of victims' bodies were too burnt for medics to administer to them.

"It was tough. Just, so many people, it's your worst nightmare as a paramedic to be overwhelmed or under-resourced and not able to help more," St John paramedic Chrissie Nairn said.

Both Waghorn and Milbank were placed in induced comas when they first arrived at hospital. There were days where they lay oblivious to the gravity of what had happened while their families felt it intensely.

"It's an image that I'll never get out of my head. It's not the image but the feeling that came with it, it was just, the oxygen gets sucked out of your body, and it was then that I thought, 'she's in big trouble'," Shelley Waghorn, Kelsey's mum, said.

For the two Kiwi survivors, the months since have been a blur of surgeries, hurt, and rehabilitation.

White Island Tours first started operating in 1991, but with WorkSafe and coronial investigations still ongoing, no one knows if Whakaari will ever welcome tourists again.

"I never feel any anger towards the island," Milbank said. "It's great respect for that place."

That respect brought him back to the island that has changed his life.

And like Waghorn, he's promising to embrace that life, because he knows he's lucky to still have it.

Hear more of Jake and Kelsey's stories by tuning into The Eruption: Stories of Survival from 8:30pm on Monday night on Three.