As the Ovation of the Seas cruise liner docked in Sydney under a pale dawn this morning, passengers began to talk about the despair that unfolded last Monday.
A day when the simple choice between a visit to Lord of the Rings’ Hobbiton set, white-water rafting, or a $320 trip to the White Island volcano became a choice between life and potentially death.
Kim Lee Eng had considered taking the tour to White Island.
“We always wanted to see something like that and we know the risks,” he said as he left the Royal Caribbean vessel.
“But we have my 86-year-old mum with us and a friend on crutches. So we went to Hobbiton instead.”
Jo-Anne Anderson decided to take to the rapids of the Wairoa River, around 15 minutes south of Tauranga where the ship had docked.
She finds it hard to come to terms with the fact that while she was careering down a river, scores of her fellow passengers had become engulfed in the unimaginable horror unfolding as the White Island volcano erupted.
“I feel really sorry; even selfish. We were enjoying ourselves white water rafting while elsewhere people were being blown away.
“It broke my heart,” she said, sobbing outside Sydney’s cruise terminal this morning.
“These people went on a holiday of a lifetime and never came home.”
Ms Henderson was one of about 4000 passengers who disembarked from a 12-day South Pacific cruise that turned to tragedy. Tears streamed down faces as family members were reunited.
Sixteen people are now confirmed to have died on the island, also known as Whakaari, when it erupted spewing out molten mud, toxic gases and superheated steam. A further 27 are injured, many critically. Two bodies are thought to have slid in the water with prospects for their retrieval fading.
Talking to news.com.au early this morning, passengers described how the mood instantly changed on the ship – from carefree to sombre.
Staff members broke down in tears and the captain was said to be devastated. Most praised the efforts of staff. But others criticised the cruise line and said it had “handled terribly” the incident.
TRAGIC CLUES TO UNFOLDING DISASTER
Last Monday, while Ms Anderson was white-water rafting and Mr Kim was looking at Hobbit homes, a group of school friends from Melbourne were mooching around the tidy coastal town of Tauranga.
At 2.11pm, as the disaster began to unfold, they were oblivious to events out in the waters of the Bay of Plenty.
But as the hours went by, clues began to surface that not all was well, said Jess Smithies.
“We got back on the boat and it was meant to leave at 5.30pm and by 6pm I said to my friend that maybe something was wrong because the boat usually left on time.”
Passenger Karen Kociszewski, who was holidaying with her husband and kids, told news.com.au there were rumours something was wrong.
“We were waiting to leave Tauranga and they kept calling for people over the PA. We just assumed they were running late,” she said.
But it was out of the ordinary enough to get people talking.
Robin Oilsmith said in hindsight the announcements were unnerving, with the crew potentially looking for passengers that were never to return.
“There were three cabins they just kept calling,” she said.
Josh and Elise Pierce were married in Adelaide the Saturday before they left for their honeymoon on Ovation of the Seas.
“We hoped our honeymoon would be great and it was just tragic,” Mr Peirce said.
“About three or four o’clock on the Monday we started to find out something had happened.”
Talk arose of an unfolding incident out of sight and sound of the vessel.
Then, just after 6pm, the terrible rumours were confirmed over the PA by Captain Hernik Loy.
“We got back from rafting and popped upstairs for a drink and that’s how we found out,” said Ms Anderson.
“It hit us dreadfully; all we could do was pray for these poor people and hope that God took them home quickly and that they didn’t suffer too much.
“What a horrible way to go, on an expensive trip and never come home,” she said.
Ms Smithies was equally shocked: “The captain let us know what had happened and we were like, what? That’s crazy.”
‘BROKE DOWN IN MY ARMS’
Mobile reception was patchy and Wi-Fi was expensive so some passengers were less contactable than others. That put worried family members in Australia even further on edge.
“We got messages from our parents saying call us and they were asking if we were OK,” Ms Smithies said.
One passenger said it only really hit her when she saw what she suspected was the luggage of the passengers affected being wheeled down the corridors and off the ship by crew.
Several people news.com.au spoke too said the ship’s captain was audibly and visibly “devastated”. As were other staff.
“One of the chefs broke down in my arms because he knew one of the crew that got badly injured. She was only 23,” said Ms Kociszewski.
Mr Pierce said the first night was surreal with the ship’s entertainment schedule barely changed.
“There were still parties. It took a while to sink in.”
He said by the next day Royal Caribbean radically altered the on ship activity list.
“They made quite a sombre message that they weren’t going to do the fun and games they normally do,” he said.
“The second day in Tauranga we stayed on the ship. It was an emotional day; we really weren’t in the mood to do anything.
“We finally managed to talk to family back home and we definitely needed a few beers after that.”
FRIENDS WITH THOSE WHO DIED
Some passengers are full of praise for the actions of the captain and crew, which they said was informative while being respectful to the victims. Names of those affected, for instance, were not relayed to other passengers.
However, a number of passengers felt the communication was lacking. They said that given the tragedy was unfolding in the media, including their fellow travellers’ names, more information could have been given on board.
One dad was furious with Royal Caribbean. His son, he said, had made friends with two of the people now confirmed to have perished.
“He’s not (okay),” he said. “He was in the medical centre last night at 2am, it was terrible.”
Tearing up, he clutched a piece of paper with generic mental health advice, which he said was the extent of the help he and his family had received.
“I have a 17-year-old boy and this is what I got. They offer you mental health support on the last night when you’re about to get off,” he said.
“The worst thing is the way Royal Caribbean handled this. It was terrible.
“The captain didn’t even tell us what was happening. We had to watch the news. It was a prison ship in the end, you weren’t allowed to know anything.”
Ms Kociszewski said Royal Caribbean should have “done their homework” regarding White Island given the threat level had been raised.
“You sign a waiver to say that if you go there and break your ankle you’re not going to sue them, but you don’t go there thinking a volcano will erupt,” she said.
In a statement, Royal Caribbean thanked the passengers for their understanding.
“Our thoughts remain with those affected and we will continue to provide ongoing support and services to them and their families during this difficult time.”
Indeed, other passengers praised Royal Caribbean’s assistance and one said they “handled (the incident) wonderfully”.
Repeatedly, those on board said the most poignant moment of the tragedy came when a group of Maori New Zealanders performed a memorial for the victims.
“We had a minute’s silence and then the Maoris did a ceremony and they said the people that died were their people now,” said Ms Oilsmith.
Mr Pierce said it was not the honeymoon they imagined or wanted, but at least they had made it back safe and sound.
“We’ll be happy to get home and just hug our families.”
New Zealand police have officially named 12 of the victims so far. They are:
• Krystal Browitt, 21
• Anthony Langford, 51
• Kristine Langford, 45
• Martin Hollander, 48
• Matthew Hollander, 13 (US citizen)
• Berend Hollander, 16 (US citizen)
• Karla Mathews, 32
• Jason Griffiths, 33
• Jessica Richards, 20
• Gavin Dallow, 53
• Zoe Hosking, 15
• Tipene Maangi, 24 (NZ citizen)
The final four victims believed to be deceased but not yet named are:
• Winona Langford, 17, Anthony and Kristine’s daughter
• Richard Elzer, 32, partner of Karla Mathews and friend of Jason Griffiths
• Julie Richards, 47, mum of Jessica Richards
• Barbara Hollander, 50, a US citizen and wife of Martin Hollander