WELLINGTON – A woman whose son was killed in a volcanic eruption in New Zealand a year ago said that as she stood crying, wailing and calling out his name on a beach soon afterward, a stranger came up to her and held her.
“To this day, I do not know who that lady was,” said Avey Woods during a televised service held Wednesday in the town of Whakatane to mark the first anniversary of the tragedy. “I hope she's listening, because that just shows you what a community we are, and how powerful that felt that day."
Woods' 40-year-old son Hayden Marshall-Inman was a tour guide and among 22 people killed in the Dec. 9, 2019, eruption on White Island. The island had been a popular tourist destination and 47 people were visiting when superheated steam spewed out from the crater floor. Most of those who survived suffered horrific burns.
Woods said she continues to go to the beach each day to remember her son.
“No-one can tell us how to grieve,” Woods said. “Because we grieve in our own time. And I believe that no-one ever gets over the loss of a loved one. You go through so many emotions. It's shock, denial, tears, pain, anger, depression."
Many people now question why tourists were ever allowed to visit the island, especially after experts monitoring seismic activity had raised the volcano’s alert level two weeks before the eruption.
New Zealand authorities last month filed safety violation charges against 10 organizations and three individuals in relation to the eruption. The charges brought by New Zealand’s WorkSafe agency are separate from an ongoing police investigation that could result in more charges. And families of some of those killed and injured have also filed their own lawsuits.
But Wednesday's service was a time for those who lost loved ones or who were injured to pay tribute to the heroic rescue efforts by other tourists, who returned to the island in a boat to pick up the injured, as well as to police and hospital staff. People at the service stood in silence at 2:11 p.m., the moment the eruption took place.
Lauren and Matt Urey, who were injured in the eruption while visiting New Zealand on their honeymoon, spoke in a prerecorded video clip from their hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
“It is difficult to believe that a year has gone by already when it feels like this just happened yesterday,” said Matt Urey. “While we have been forever changed by that day and will certainly never forget it, we are doing our best to move forward.”
Lauren Urey said that from the shadow of the tragedy they had met amazing people, including the tourists who consoled them and provided emergency first aid on the boat trip back to Whakatane, and other survivors who have continued to be part of a support network as they recover.
Many of those killed and injured were tourists who had been traveling from Australia aboard the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Ovation of the Seas. Of those killed, 14 were Australian, five were American, two were New Zealanders and one was German.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was among the dignitaries who attended the service.
“I want to send a message of aroha (love) and support to the survivors overseas, their families and those who lost loved ones as well as those who are here with us in the room today," Ardern said. “We share in your sorrow.”
White Island is the tip of an undersea volcano and is also known by its indigenous Maori name, Whakaari.