White Island eruption: Unseen footage shows guide warning tourists of danger moments before disaster

Warning: This article contains graphic details that may disturb some readers.

Harrowing unseen footage taken mere moments before the White Island eruption has emerged, a panicked voice telling the tourists to 'run' as ominous steam begins to rise from the crater.

The release of the video comes almost a year after Whakaari/White Island erupted on December 9, 2019, claiming the lives of 21 tourists who had been exploring the landmark, located off the coast of Whakatane. The 26 others on the volcano at the time of the explosion suffered severe burns, many of whom are still recovering from their injuries.

Melbourne woman Stephanie Browitt, 24, survived - but her father Paul and sister Krystal, 21, were among the 14 Australians killed in the eruption. 

Now, previously unreleased footage from Krystal's phone shows the moments prior to the devastation - and captured her final moments alive.

In the video, a tour guide can be heard warning tourists of the impending danger.

"The higher the level, the more risk there is of an eruption. Level three is an eruption," he explains. 

"So we are on level two, nearing level three now."

The footage then captures the frenzied terror as Krystal runs from the thick, billowing smoke building behind her. A man's voice can be heard yelling, 'Run!'"

Sharing her story to 60 Minutes, Browitt - who has undergone 20 operations for her near-fatal burns - said visitors were told the crater walk would be cut short due to the increased risk, a warning which set alarm bells ringing.

"I was very wary and cautious as soon as they mentioned it was a level two," the 24-year-old, who wears a full-face compression mask, told the programme.

Previously unseen footage taken from White Island victim Krystal Browitt's phone shows the volcano beginning to erupt - and the moment a tour guide warned visitors of the danger.
Previously unseen footage taken from White Island victim Krystal Browitt's phone shows the volcano beginning to erupt - and the moment a tour guide warned visitors of the danger. Photo credit: 60 Minutes / Nine / Screengrab

She said the tourists were instructed to walk quickly, which Browitt found "weird". When the volcano began to smoke, she fled.

"That's when we realised... [I made] a split-second decision to just bolt," she recalled.

"It was just rolling me over, the force was just that strong."

Browitt said she thought she was going to die as she looked down and saw the skin and nails hanging off her hand.

"The ground was burning hot, and I could tell I was burnt really badly."

The eruption killed 21 tourists and injured 26 others.
The eruption killed 21 tourists and injured 26 others. Photo credit: Michael Schade / Twitter

The 24-year-old, who suffered third-degree burns to 70 percent of her body, said she wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for the efforts of Kāhu NZ helicopter pilots Jason Hill and Tom Storey, who were among the first to respond to the eruption. 

Speaking to 60 Minutes, Storey said he and his colleagues made the decision to help after being informed that medical aid would be delayed due to the danger.

"We figured we had to do something and get those people off the island," Storey said.

Browitt's denied father attracted the pilots' attention, but told them to save his daughters first.

She still remembers the flight back to the mainland and fighting to stay conscious as her body tried to shut down.

"The pilot kept on saying, 'stay awake, stay awake'," she said. "Those pilots are heroes because that's not their job... and they still put their lives at risk for us."

Browitt was placed in a coma. When she woke a few weeks later, she found out her sister hadn't survived. Her father succumbed to his injuries a month after the eruption.

Browitt's mother, Marie, avoided the disaster as she had remained on the Ovation of the Seas cruise liner, which the family had been travelling on.

Krystal Browitt, 21, died in the White Island eruption.
Krystal Browitt, 21, died in the White Island eruption. Photo credit: File

St John medical director Dr Tony Smith has since admitted that emergency crews should have responded to the disaster more rapidly, but the delay was not responsible for lost lives.

Browitt refuted that claim, saying lives could have been saved if medical aid had been dispatched sooner.

"I know it definitely would've made a difference for a lot of the people that were there waiting."

American newlyweds Matt and Lauren Urey agreed, telling 60 Minutes that those capable of rescue "were told not to". The couple, who sheltered behind a rock near the water when the volcano exploded, suffered extreme burns and spent two months recovering in separate hospitals. They still bear scars and compression garments.

Browitt is also outraged that tour operators failed to inform visitors of the dangers and the volcano's instability before travelling to the island.

"It's a major factor in making an informed decision about going on the island... it's just such a huge piece of information to be left out."

Pictures shared to Browitt's Instagram show the young woman posing in front of the volcanic steam prior to the eruption. 

Another shot shows the Browitts as a unit before the disaster tore their family apart.

December 9 at 2:11pm will mark the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, which killed 14 Australians, five Americans and two New Zealanders.

The bodies of Kiwi tour guide Hayden Marshall-Inman and 17-year-old Australian tourist Winona Langford were never recovered.