Whakaari/White Island eruption: A year on, here's how brave Kiwi survivors Jake Milbank and Kelsey Waghorn are recovering

Today marks exactly a year since the eruption of Whakaari/White Island, a volcano off the coast of Whakatāne in the Bay of Plenty.

The natural disaster on December 9, 2019 claimed the lives of 22 people, left 25 others with horrific injuries and irreparably changed the lives of a community forever.

A public memorial will be held at 11:30am at the Mataatua Reserve in Whakatāne to commemorate those who lost their lives in the tragedy.

The days and weeks that followed the eruption were a flurry of activity - hospitals treating the injured; hundreds of thousands of dollars of skin grafts shipped in; missions to locate the missing and recover the bodies.

Since the disaster, WorkSafe - New Zealand's workplace health and safety regulator - has been investigating the disaster, and recently filed charges against 13 parties.

Ten companies are facing a maximum fine of $1.5 million for alleged breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act, while three individuals are accused of failing to exercise due diligence and could be penalised as much as $300,000 each.

A coronial investigation into the eruption is ongoing.

'My hands were melting': Kiwi tour guides on how they survived

For many of the survivors of the White Island tragedy, the burns suffered have left them needing medical care for the rest of their lives. This is true of Kelsey Waghorn and Jake Milbank, the only two Kiwis to escape the island alive.

The White Island Tour guides spoke about their horrific experiences last month in The Eruption: Stories of Survival - a Three documentary on the remarkable story behind the disaster and their recoveries.

Kelsey Waghorn and Jake Milbank.
Kelsey Waghorn and Jake Milbank. Photo credit: Newshub.

In the film, Milbank's mother Janet revealed he hadn't even planned to be working that day but was called in at the last minute. His decision to go to work that day nearly cost him his life.

He remembers the excruciating moments after the eruption as he fled the massive plume of smoke billowing out of Whakaari's crater.

"I remember seeing my skin hanging off [my forearm]. I went to grab one of the rails on the wharf and the skin on my palm just slid off," he recounted.

"I just flopped myself down off the wharf into the boat. Jacquie was in the front and I kind of just flopped down into her lap. I was looking at myself and thinking 'okay, we're bad but we're off the island - I'm alive, just gotta make the trip home'."

Waghorn says she was running on adrenaline as she ran away from danger. It was only when she'd reached the wharf when the pain started setting in.

"There was nothing I could do for anyone, let alone myself," she said. "I pretty much jumped in [the rescue boat]. I knew I couldn't touch anything because things were getting pretty sticky.

"On the way home I remember looking at my hands. They were melting."

During the 50km journey back to Whakatane, rescuers constantly filled bottles with freshwater from tanks onboard the boat and poured it over the severely burned bodies of the victims to keep them alive.

Miraculously, both Waghorn and Milbank survived the boat ride and were transferred to hospital.

The recovery

The pair - Waghorn in Whakatane Hospital, Milbank taken to Waikato Hospital - were swaddled in bandages. 

The burns they'd suffered were different to standard burns, medical specialist Dr Richard Wong She explained, as the acid involved had caused a severe chemical imbalance that was life-threatening.

Unlike a burn from hot water, which will stop once it's cooled down, the hydrofluoric acid emitted by Whakaari when it erupted continued to burn the skin after treatment and was toxic. This meant all the affected skin needed to be removed and replaced with skin grafts.

Waghorn was in a coma for five days after suffering full-thickness burns to 45 percent of her body. She was told she'd have to learn how to walk again, which she managed in mid-January.

"There were and are real low points - it's just too hard and too big," she recounts.

Kelsey Waghorn says she had some dark times in the early days of her recovery.
Kelsey Waghorn says she had some dark times in the early days of her recovery. Photo credit: Three

"You have those moments where you're just done and don't want to talk to anyone and want to curl up in bed and shut the curtains. But then you shake it off… recentre and reground yourself."

Milbank, whose burns covered 80 percent of his body, was in a coma for two weeks. He woke up just three days before Christmas, and on December 25 took his first steps since the disaster.

A family member gave him a gemstone or crystal every time he went into hospital for a medical procedure, and nine months on from the tragedy had accrued 26 of the precious rocks.

"Having that many surgeries that close together, it was just a constant back-and-forth - one step back, two steps forward kind of a thing," he said.

Jake Milbank made a miraculous recovery from his burns, but still requires years of medical treatment.
Jake Milbank made a miraculous recovery from his burns, but still requires years of medical treatment. Photo credit: Three

"There were times earlier where I'd be in the best condition I'd been in since the eruption and I was doing the most stuff I'd been doing - and then I'd go and have a surgery and I'd be back to where I was a month before."

But for Milbank, it's the experiences of others from that time in hospital that fills him with the most sadness.

"It's just so much harder for [others]. All their family not around, you know? Having to come over from overseas to look after their loved ones who are in the hospital," he said.

"And then COVID just added another [layer] on top of it. I just can't imagine how it must've been without that support, because it was one of the bigger things that got me through."

How they're doing now

Waghorn and Milbank still face years of recovery.

The former says it's a huge part of the story of her life, and has "flipped everything on its head".

"Everything I'd initially planned to do has changed," she explained.

"I love being out on the water, every chance I get I'm still going to try and go out to sea. But it certainly limits me, it's not like I can just go and work on a boat - I have to be a lot more careful now."

Milbank made an emotional return to White Island on his father's boat nine months on from the tragedy. He said despite the life-changing experience he had there, he holds no resentment towards the island.

"I have great respect for that place," he said. "It's a magical place, you know? It's beautiful."

Nor does he have any anger about what happened to him on December 9. He says he feels for the victims and their families, and just feels fortunate to have survived to tell his story.

"I guess I've basically been given a second chance, haven't I? So I'm not going to waste it."

The Eruption: Stories of Survival aired on Three last month. You can watch it here on ThreeNow.