"The water is what saved us."
Back in December 2019, 47 tourists and their guides were exploring a small New Zealand island called White Island when disaster struck.
The island is the 1,000-feet-tall peak of a much larger underwater volcano — New Zealand's most active — lurking below the surface, which erupted in spectacular fashion, sending massive cascades of smoke billowing into the air, as seen in dramatic videos shared on social media.
It was such a forceful event that 22 out of the 47 people on the island died. Others, fortunately, were more lucky.
Now, a helicopter pilot has revealed in a court hearing this week that he and two of his passengers managed to escape largely unscathed by jumping into the ocean shortly after the volcano erupted, CBS News reports. Two additional passengers got away with serious burns after failing to make it into the water.
"The water is what saved us," the pilot, Brian Depauw told the court.
It's a harrowing tale.
"I heard my customer saying should we run now?" Depauw said in a statement that was recorded just three days following the eruption. "I looked behind me and saw the plume going up 1,000 or 2,000 feet high, I saw boulders and debris arcing toward us, so I said: 'Run, run, run to the water. Follow me."
"The minute I hit the water, it went black," he added. "The ash came and obviously hit us and I couldn't see anything."
Dewaul recalls trying to stay underwater while holding his breath until he "saw some light through the ash."
The trial is the result of tour operators being accused of failing to ensure the safety of their customers, as the BBC reported earlier this week.
Horrifying videos shared at the trial show tourists fleeing for their lives.
Since December 2020, New Zealand's main health and safety regulator WorkSafe NZ has been investigating the incident, accusing 13 parties of exposing people to undue risk of harm.
"This was an unexpected event, but that does not mean it was unforeseeable and there is a duty on operators to protect those in their care," WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes said at the time, as quoted by the BBC.
The trial is expected to last months. Several tour operators have already pleaded guilty and will be fined, according to CBS.
More on volcanoes: Violent Volcano Eruption Triggers Massive Thunderstorm
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