On Dec. 9, 2019, a volcano erupted on a small island off the coast of New Zealand. The indigenous Maori people of New Zealand named the volcano “Whakaari,” which translates to “dramatic” in english.
The eruption on that day claimed the lives of 22 people either in the explosion or from injuries sustained, including two whose bodies were never found and were later declared dead. A further 25 people suffered injuries, most needing intensive care for severe burns.
Director Rory Kennedy recently created a documentary called The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari that chronicles the natural disaster and the experiences of the three tour groups present during the unanticipated eruption.
Visiting an Active Volcano
During a routine sightseeing day-trip to the remote volcanic island, 47 tourists and guides were trapped in the epicenter of a boiling pyroclastic surge of toxic dust and ash. Both terrifying and inspiring, the film uses first-hand accounts to convey the experience of living through such a deadly eruption.
Whakaari is an active stratovolcano island in New Zealand’s northeastern Bay of Plenty region. Due to the unprecedented access the island offers to the mouth of the volcano, it has long been a popular tourist destination.
Whakaari erupted in 2013 and 2016 prior to the 2019 eruption that killed 22 people and severely injured many others. On Dec. 9, 2019, the volcano was considered to be a “level two” threat out of a possible three.
While this may have caused concern among some tourists and guides, according to prominent vulcanologist Dr. Rosaly Lopes, New Zealand itself is essentially a string of active volcanoes, many of which are currently at level two.
“The chances that something was going to happen at that exact time that they were on the island was a very low probability, but nevertheless, it was a real potential danger. And maybe some of them were quite aware of that,” Lopes said.
The previous eruptions in 2013 and 2016 seemed to suggest a pattern that put Wakaari on a path to erupt once again sometime in 2019, but according to Lopes, the event was a largely random one.
it is not a cycle,” Lopes said. “And in fact, this was what we call a free explosion. It was caused by water coming in contact with magma. It was a chance event. The problem is that it could erupt pretty much any time.”
Spirit of the Phoenix
Questions could be raised about the culpability of the New Zealand government for allowing civilians to visit an active volcano en masse on a daily basis, but Kennedy instead focuses on the first-hand accounts of the men and women trapped on the island that day.
Harrowing tales of black ash surrounding the island are revealed by the survivors, even as the viewer can see the scars left by the incident.
First-hand video footage of the day is reminiscent of a Hollywood apocalypse film as tourists scrambled to make their way to safety.
But underlying the accounts of destruction is a theme of resilience. Offering more than a startling and brutal portrait of mother nature’s profound indifference, The Volcano also serves as testimony to human nature’s innate generosity.
Guided by survivors — men and women who were tested in ways they never imagined — as well as the courageous and quick-thinking ordinary citizens who sprang to action that day, the viewer comes to understand the value of our human connection.
“I was inspired by the stories of everyday people who turned into heroes that day and arguably risk their lives to help others,” Kennedy said.
In a real-life poetic twist that could turn a hardened cynic into a believer in fate, the tourist boat that would eventually become the rescue vessel for the survivors was called The Phoenix — named for the mythical bird that rises reborn from its own ashes after death.
The captain of the Phoenix and the tour group on board made the courageous decision to sail back to the steam and ash-covered island after narrowly escaping themselves in order to help those still trapped.
Like many of Kennedy’s previous projects, the documentary shines a light on a subject that has not gotten the attention of mainstream media. Offering first-hand accounts and an intimate look at the peril through which the survivors of the 2019 Whakaari eruption lived, The Volcano is not one to miss.
The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari is available to stream on Netflix Dec. 16, 2022.