Six months on from the deadly volcanic eruption on Whakaari/White Island, American couple Matt and Lauren Urey spoke exclusively to 1 NEWS about their ill-fated honeymoon from their home in Richmond, Virginia.
By Paul Hobbs and Audrey Malone
10.30am on Tuesday, December 9, 2019:
Matt and Lauren Urey leave Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas, headed for Whakaari/White Island. The newlywed American couple are very much in love and celebrating their honeymoon visiting Australasia. Matt, a self-confessed nerd who has been fascinated with Australia and New Zealand since childhood, is bursting to visit the active volcano. They pick the tour from brochures onboard the ship.
It’s an hour-and-a-half-long bus ride to Whakatāne from the Port of Tauranga, where the ship is berthed.
The Ureys met on Match.com.
“You know, I was not too hopeful and Matt told me he wasn't too hopeful either, but he sent me a message and he seemed like such a wonderful, genuine guy,” Lauren recalls. A smile plays across her lips, and there is a noticeable softening.
The boat lands by the island. It’s been a rocky journey, and half of the passengers have vomited. Lauren is feeling queasy and happy to put her feet on terra firma. Tour operators tell the group some areas are off-limits, because the volcano is at Level 2. They are in the first group to get off, and are handed respirators. Five minutes later, the couple take a picture on Whakaari/White Island, arms wrapped around each other, smiles on their faces.
They trek the active volcano taking snaps of each other and the natural wonder they are visiting.
Lauren wasn’t convinced the first date was a hit. They had gone out for dinner, but because they are both super fast eaters, the meal had lasted about 20 minutes in total.
“I was like, 'I dunno if this guy likes me', but then he asked to see me again.”
The pair take photos of each other, standing in front of plumes of thick white gas, wearing yellow hard hats, the respirators slung around their necks. Again, the wide smiles enveloping their faces were captured on their camera.
They are captivated by the beauty of the island - it is like nothing else they have ever seen.
The pair had married two months earlier in Charleston, South Carolina. Lauren described the warm autumn day as a fairytale.
“I can't imagine marrying anybody else. I mean, he is my best friend and I just love him so much.”
Everything goes silent. Someone starts to yell, and a small cloud of ash is visible, shooting up out of the lake at the crater.
“We heard someone yell ‘Look!’ and we turned around and we see this - at the time - this very small cloud of ash shooting up out of the lake and heard one of our guides yell, 'Run!' and we just took off in a frantic run,” Matt said.
Dark grey ash blankets the area, and rocks start falling on the 47 people exploring the island.
“And then the cloud just consumed us. I mean it was the darkest, most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen in my life. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face," he said.
“You could just feel your skin burning."
“Sizzling,” Lauren interjects.
“You could feel rocks pelting down on your hard hat, and all over us,” Matt said.
The pair scramble for cover. Looking anywhere they could, finding shelter behind a large rock along with eight others, while smaller rocks fly through the air.
“I mean it was just the most terrifying moment in my life. I was absolutely convinced this was the end for both of us. I don't know how we ever survived,” Matt said.
“I just held his hand and my respirator flew off immediately. And I just held his hand, I just told him, 'I love you, I love you,' and like he said, I thought it was only seconds until I would die. I just wanted him to know how much I loved him,” Lauren said.
“His face was covered in ash. I wouldn't have known it was him except he's so tall.”
“Immediately afterward it was eerily quiet, everyone started moving towards where the jetty was,” Matt said.
They got onto a boat, operated by another tour company. Skin is peeling off them, and the screams pierce the air. Lauren had lost her respirator, and had breathed in a lot of a noxious gas. On the boat she went into shock.
“It was torture. I remember just screaming, just asking why we weren't getting a helicopter,” Lauren said.
“She was in a very bad state at that point. She was hyperthermic, drifting in and out of consciousness. I was really worried about her,” Matt said.
Matt suffered burns to more than half his body and Lauren was extensively burned and her life was in sever danger from damage to her lungs.
The second part of the couple's story, focusing on the two months they spent apart in separate hospitals, and who they believe should be held to account, will air on Wednesday on 1 NEWS at Six and 1NEWS.co.nz