AUCKLAND, New Zealand — A Richmond woman said she told her new husband she loved him and was certain they would die when a New Zealand volcano erupted in 2019, killing 22 people.
Lauren, 35, and Matt Urey, 39, returned to New Zealand from their home in Richmond, Virginia, to testify in the Auckland District Court on Wednesday in the trial of three tourism companies and three directors charged with safety breaches over the Dec. 9 White Island disaster.
The honeymooning couple was among 47 people on White Island, the tip of an undersea volcano also known by its Indigenous Maori name, Whakaari, when superheated gases erupted. Most of the 25 people who survived were severely burned, including the Ureys.
The court was shown video statements the couple provided police as they were convalescing.
In 2019, the couple traveled to New Zealand from Australia aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas.
Matt Urey had booked the volcano tour through the Florida-based cruise company.
Lauren Urey said she was concerned by the prospect of visiting a live volcano.
“I was paranoid, to be honest. I was really iffy about the volcano months before we even went on it,” she said.
She said a guide had assured her that an early warning system on the island would alert them 10 minutes before any eruption.
She said she was told wearing a hard hat on the volcano was compulsory but wearing a respirator was optional. She rarely wore the respirator because it was uncomfortable.
She was feeling safe by the time she got to the volcano crater and was enjoying herself until a tourist pointed to the rising plume of the eruption.
“I remember my heart just sink and so many people were taking pictures. I just freaked out,” she said.
Matt Urey described seeing a “huge plume coming up” and a "large black cloud.” He heard a guide say: “Not today. Run.”
Lauren Urey said she and her husband ran for their lives, then hid behind rocks and held each other’s hands.
“He was just screaming in agony. I’ve never heard him scream like that before. I remember he said he was sorry,” she said.
“I remember me screaming in agony. My body was sizzling,” she added. “I said: ‘I Iove you so much. I’m going to die today.’”
She struggled to put her respirator on because of the force of the volcano and she was determined to keep holding her husband’s hand.
“I was positive we were going to die and if were we going to die, I wanted to be next to him,” she said tearfully.
Matt Urey wept as he recalled checking on his wife's condition as they crouched behind rocks. Both were covered in ash.
He said he helped her back to the boat, lifting her back to her feet after she stumbled and badly burnt her right hand. “We couldn’t run anymore because the ash was so thick. We were walking as fast as we could back towards the boat," he said.
The badly burned couple managed to make their way from the island. Both spent weeks in hospitals.
Lauren Urey said she was given no warning of the dangers of an eruption or advice to wear protective clothing.
“My husband would never put my life or his life at risk and I trusted my husband. I would have no reason not to trust him,” she said.
Matt Urey said he was not told until they had almost reached the island that there was a “stage two" volcanic alert level which meant that parts of the island were off-limits.
“They didn't really explain what that meant,” he said.
“I thought there must be more steam venting than usual or something like that. I certainly didn't interpret it as … there's a risk of an eruption,” he added.
Under New Zealand's six-tier Volcanic Alert Level system, Level 2 denotes moderate to heightened volcanic unrest.
Hazards include a potential eruption.
Level 3 is a minor volcanic eruption with eruption hazards near the vent.
Matt Urey said he never would have risked the tour if he had understood the alert level.
"I never in my wildest dreams would have gone on that island had I known an eruption was Level 3. We were on our honeymoon, we were just looking to relax. We weren’t looking for thrills,” he said.
Matt Urey said he suffered burns to 53% of his body.
His wife said she has undergone around one surgery a month, including skin grafts, for three years.
The island’s owners, brothers Andrew, James and Peter Buttle; their company Whakaari Management Ltd.; as well as tour operators ID Tours NZ Ltd. and Tauranga Tourism Services Ltd. have pleaded not guilty to all charges. Other tour operators have pleaded guilty and will be fined at a later date.
Each of the companies faces a maximum fine of 1.5 million New Zealand dollars ($927,000). Each of the brothers charged faces a maximum fine of NZ$300,000 ($185,000).
The trial, scheduled to run for 16 weeks, is being heard by Judge Evangelos Thomas without a jury. It began Tuesday and was adjourned until Thursday after the couple testified.
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