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Two years ago, Stephanie survived the White Island volcano eruption. Now she can finally remove her mask.

On December 9, 2019, 47 unsuspecting tourists and tour guides were on Whakaari / White Island when the active volcano erupted.

Closest to the crater was the Browitt family; daughters Stephanie and Krystal and father Paul. 

At first, they didn't realise what was happening and took photos of the smoke coming out of the volcano. A few seconds later, a tour guide screamed.

"Run!"

Watch: Stephanie Browitt removes her compression mask on 60 Minutes. Post continues below video.


Video via 60 Minutes.

"You could hear the sound of all the rocks hitting the ground and people just screaming because no one knew what to do," Stephanie previously told 60 Minutes in 2020.

"Everyone was just petrified. And then when it hit, it was just darkness. I didn't think I would survive. I thought I was going to die. It was just rolling me over. The force was just that strong, that my whole body was being shoved and pushed and rolled onto the ground. I was just hitting things while getting burnt at the same time.

"It was the most terrifying moment of my life. The ground was burning hot. And I could tell I was burnt really badly. I could see my hand and I could see nails hanging off and skin loose."

Now, over two years on from the incident that left her suffering burns to 70 per cent of her body, Stephanie has finally been able to remove her compression face mask for the first time.

Appearing on 60 Minutes on Sunday, the 26-year-old said that being able to remove her mask felt "emotional and scary".

"It is actually quite daunting as much as it is exciting," she shared.

Looking in the mirror now, Stephanie says she sees "a person who has gone through so much more than I ever expected to go through" in life.

"I see a very tormented person," she said. 

"I definitely think I'm tougher than I ever thought I would be... I think I have learnt that the fight for survival is a real thing. I was fighting every day to survive, just to get back to myself... I never knew I had this in me."

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After the incident, Stephanie said she had to completely "start from scratch". 

"I thought my future was pretty bleak, and it was quite scary," she said.

"I had to start from scratch like a baby. Sitting upright, getting out of bed, taking my first few steps, even feeding myself – I had to relearn all of those skills from scratch and they didn’t come easy at all. It was incredibly difficult."

Looking back, the 26-year-old credits her recovery to her mother, Marie, who 'pushed her' through her recovery from day one. 

"Whilst my scars are visible, she has her own that aren't visible, but she has always made sure to put me first," she said.

"I just hope my sister and dad can see me now and what I have gone through."

A rescue effort.

After the eruption, Stephanie remembers the sound of her dad calling her name multiple times before their rescue.

"I realised he was checking up and making sure I was still awake the whole time.

"I was just so happy to hear his voice because I thought I'd lost him."

With the volcano visible from New Zealand's Bay of Plenty, the eruption became quickly obvious on the mainland. In the town of Whakatāne, Kahu Air helicopter pilots, Jason Hill and Tom Storey, headed straight for the island.

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The pilots landed their helicopters close to the volcano crater an hour after the eruption and believed professional help was not far behind them.

But a fleet of 11 search and rescue helicopters remained at Whakatāne, with authorities not sending them straight away due to safety concerns.

Tour operators and vessels that had recently left the island returned following the eruption, rescuing several tourists from the edge of the island before escaping the ash plumes.

When Hill and Storey landed an hour later, Paul managed to get their attention. Paul and Stephanie were among 12 people transported from the island in their helicopters.

Two-and-a-half hours later, a professional rescue helicopter carrying paramedics and St John Medical Director Dr Tony Smith arrived - but by that time, all the survivors had been removed.

Krystal Browitt. Image: Facebook.

The body of Krystal, who had just celebrated her 21st birthday, was recovered from the island days later.

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Stephanie previously told 60 Minutes she wouldn't be alive if Hill and Storey hadn't leapt into action.

"Those helicopter pilots are heroes because that's not their job. They didn't sign up for that. And they still chose to put their lives at risk for us," she said.

The survivors felt they were left for dead by rescuers and believed more people could've been saved if they'd arrived sooner.

Dr Smith told reporter Sarah Abo he understood now that rescue teams could have reached the island sooner.

"We have reflected, knowing what we know now, we could have flown to the island earlier," he said.

"But had we gone to the island sooner, I'm absolutely medically confident... unfortunately, we were not going to save any more additional people."

"It broke me."

Stephanie found out the fates of her family after waking from a coma.

"I found out that my sister had passed away after I'd awoken from my coma," Stephanie previously told 60 Minutes

"It haunts me not knowing what she went through, and it upsets me knowing that I wasn't there with her."

Paul died from his injuries on January 12, 2020. 

"It broke me a little," Stephanie said. 

"I wish I could thank my dad and tell him that he was a hero. I wish I could just let him know how amazing his actions were on that day.

"Sometimes I just question why I'm here. Why was it me out of everyone?"

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Twenty one people died as a result of the Whakaari / White Island eruption.

Stephanie's life now.

Stephanie suffered burns to 70 per cent of her body, including her face, arms, legs and back. She's undergone more than 20 surgeries and has had eight fingers amputated since December 2019.

She has documented her tough recovery on Instagram.

Stephanie previously told 60 Minutes she finds strength from her family, and the memory of her dad and sister.

"I push forward, not only for myself, but for my mum, my dad and my sister, because I want to make them proud and I want to make them happy," she said.

"I want them to know that I'm here and I'm grateful to be here and I'm going to make them proud."

An unknown 'level two' warning.

The Browitt family were holidaying onboard Royal Caribbean ship Ovation of the Seas when they made the day trip to the active volcano.

Paul's wife, and Stephanie and Krystal's mother, Marie Browitt stayed onboard.

Among the 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption, 38 were passengers and crew from the ship.

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Two weeks before December 9, New Zealand's volcanic monitoring authority had increased the volcano's warning level to level 2. This marked the highest alert level before an eruption took place, and indicated "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest" with the "potential for eruption hazards".

Stephanie on Whakaari / White Island, minutes before it erupted. Image: Instagram.

Stephanie previously told 60 Minutes neither the cruise company nor tour operator told the cruise ship tourists about this increased risk.

"It really hurts and upsets me and frustrates me that we weren't told," Stephanie said.

"It's a major factor in making an informed decision about going on the island and visiting it. And it's just such a huge piece of information to be left out."

Lawyer Peter Gordon is suing Royal Caribbean on behalf of the Browitts.

"They failed. They let their passengers down. They let families down, they let the Browitt family down. We've lost Krystal Browitt and Paul Browitt as a consequence of it," he explained.

"Their standard of conduct goes beyond negligent, to what seems to me to be a wanton and reckless indifference to what was going to happen on that island."

Royal Caribbean did not comment on the legal challenge, but told 60 Minutes its "hearts go out to all those affected".

This article was originally published on November 2, 2020 and was updated with new information on June 6, 2022. 

Feature Image: Instagram/60 Minutes.

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