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After New Zealand Volcano Explosion, How 1 Tourist Became A First Responder


And now to New Zealand, where dozens of people are injured and at least six are dead after a volcano erupted there on Monday. Tourists from around the world were on White Island in the Bay of Plenty when plumes of ash and smoke exploded from the volcano there.

Lillani Hopkins had just left the island with her father when the explosion began. She is now back home in Hamilton, New Zealand, and joins us now. Thank you for speaking with us.

LILLANI HOPKINS: That's all good.

SHAPIRO: I know that some of what you saw included people with serious injuries. So I just want to warn listeners that parts of our discussion might contain some graphic details. Would you just begin by telling us where you were when the volcano exploded? What could you see?

HOPKINS: So I'd just left the island, and I just got back onto our boat, which just moved around to the corner of the island to see the crater. So we were about 200 meters away from the island when it erupted.

SHAPIRO: Was there a sound? Did you just see a plume of smoke?

HOPKINS: It was completely silent. Nothing - there was no noise above the engine of the boat. It was just a plume of smoke and ash rising a couple of hundred meters into the sky. And then it started to come rolling over the cliff towards the boat.

SHAPIRO: And when did you realize that there were people in danger on the island?

HOPKINS: When it started rolling towards us on the boat, we got rushed inside. And within seconds, the whole island was covered in ash. We couldn't see the island at all. So we headed back to where the boat was to then start rescuing people.

SHAPIRO: So you immediately went to start rescuing people. I know that you and your father had medical training. Tell me...


SHAPIRO: ...What you were able to do.

HOPKINS: So originally, we were all told to be seated and stay inside as the crew were rescuing people from the water and the shore. As soon as they brought people on board and they saw the extent of the injuries, there was a call for any doctors, anyone with a first aid certificate and anyone with any medical background. They needed help. There were two doctors on board, as well as me and my dad, who had our first aid certificates. And we rushed out to help people with extensive burns.

SHAPIRO: Extensive burns. So what kind of...


SHAPIRO: ...First aid were you administering?

HOPKINS: So we were doing - a lot of people were in and out of consciousness, so checking pulse, checking heart rate. We were putting cold water and cold pieces of clothing over their burns. Some people had head injuries. So we were stopping the bleeding and just stopping people from going into shock, covering them in blankets, preventing them from being in sunlight until we could get back to mainland.

SHAPIRO: And I'm sure it was going through your head that that could so easily have been you, that you were just on that island.

HOPKINS: Yep. Five minutes earlier, and me and my dad would've been on the island. If it was half an hour earlier, me and my dad would've been set on the edge of the crater.

SHAPIRO: I'm very glad that you are OK. Can you tell us about the circumstances for your visit? Why did you decide to go there?

HOPKINS: So I'm studying geography at the University of Waikato. So I'm studying volcanoes and rocks. And my dad went to White Island 24 years ago, so it was something that I bought for his 50th birthday as a day out for the both of us to go.

SHAPIRO: Was there any part of you that thought, this is a terrible human tragedy? And at the same time, as somebody who's interested in studying these things, it is a natural phenomenon that people rarely get to witness firsthand.

HOPKINS: So when it first erupted, I was so excited. I was amazed. I was in awe. But it was the moment I realized that people's lives were in danger.

SHAPIRO: Of course. And now that you're home, how are you doing?

HOPKINS: I'm doing better - struggling to sleep. But today, I'm getting back to - going back to uni (ph) and resuming with normal life, which has been hard. But yeah, at least I'm - I'm so grateful that I'm not injured.

SHAPIRO: Lillani Hopkins, thank you for speaking with us. I'm glad that you're doing all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAG'S "LABRADOR (ENCORE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.