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‘No good skin left’: Aussie’s NZ volcano ordeal

Tour operators and the owners of NZ's White Island are accused of breaching safety regulations.

Tour operators and the owners of NZ's White Island are accused of breaching safety regulations. Photo: AAP

The first Australian witness in a trial over a deadly New Zealand eruption says tour guides never mentioned any potential dangers until they were on the volcanic island.

Annie Yongan Lu, of Sydney, gave evidence video link from Australia to Auckland District Court where Whakaari-White Island’s owners, ID Tours and Tauranga Tourism Services are accused of safety breaches that resulted in the deaths of 22 people, including 14 Australians, in 2019.

Ms Lu suffered burns to 38 per cent of her body including her legs, ankles, hands, neck and abdomen and has ongoing surgeries as part of her recovery.

“I’ve had a lot of skin grafts … there’s not a piece of good skin left on my body, they used my back, inner thighs, chest and arms for donor areas,” Ms Lu said on Thursday.

Ms Lu was aged 26 when she booked a holiday cruise with her then 56-year-old mother, Alice Xioman Zhang, to New Zealand.

“We looked at brochures of day trips and saw White Island and we decided to go,” she told police in a 2020 video interview that was played to the court.

Ms Lu said the trip to the island with her mother started exactly like every other excursion from the cruise and she followed advice and wore enclosed shoes with gym leggings.

“Nothing was really explained to us going on to the bus or the boat (about) the possibility of an explosion,” she said.

Ms Lu said they were given a safety briefing on the island and told to wear hard hats, but gas masks were optional.

“They mentioned ‘level two’ but said it was nothing to worry about … there was no explanation of what level two was,” Ms Lu said.

The trial has heard that volcanic activity level two is the highest alert level not involving an eruption.

Ms Lu and her mother stopped for one last photo of the crater when the volcano started to erupt just after 2pm on December 9.

“All of a sudden, I saw these black clouds pop up … I heard, ‘Oh my god, everybody run’,” she said.

Ms Lu said she and her mother dived behind a rock before being hit by two or three waves of heat and pain.

“I remember Mum screaming my name and everything went black as this big wind that knocked us for six and I was in so much pain and screaming into the gas mask,” she said.

After boarding a tour boat with her mother, Ms Lu ran her hands under a tap and saw that her nails were cracking and her skin was bubbling and falling off.

The boat’s crew cut off her melted leggings and she moved to the front of the vessel with the most badly injured people.

Cross-examined by ID Tours’ barrister, David Neutze, Ms Lu said she had climbed active volcanoes in Bali and Japan and relied on travel operators not to allow an unsafe tour.

“Unfortunately this time … we misplaced our trust,” she said.

Mr Neutze asked if Ms Lu had been told before the tour that a level two meant the group would have limited time at the crater.

“I do not recall,” Ms Lu said.

Helicopter pilot Brian Depauw, 30, from the UK, testified that his job with Volcanic Air was to land on the island with four passengers and give them a tour.

Mr Depauw said he was told there would be warning signs before any eruption but instead he had a matter of seconds to react and decided the group was too far from an emergency shelter.

“I said ‘run for the water and nobody look back’,” he said.

Mr Depauw said two of his passengers and himself were able to avoid serious injury by diving into the ocean and he then helped get injured people onto boats.

“You would lift them and their skin would just peel off,” he said.

The trial is also due to hear from Australians Jesse Langford and Stephanie Browitt, who were badly burned and had relatives killed by the eruption.

– AAP

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