On the eve of the three-month anniversary of the Whakaari / White Island eruption, a Hamilton pastor who cared for the critically injured and dying has spoken of how the tragedy has changed his life forever, and why he isn't comfortable being called a hero.
Twenty-one people lost their lives after the popular tourist destination off the Bay of Plenty coastline erupted on December 9.
The death toll would have been higher if not for the actions of fellow White Island visitors and tour company crew who gave immediate first aid over a two-hour period before they could get to hospital, and then medical teams who continue to provide life-saving treatment.
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Among those who helped in the immediate aftermath were Hamilton-based pastor Geoff Hopkins and his 22-year-old daughter, Lillani. The pair were on a tour boat which was about 300m offshore of White Island when it exploded.
In an exclusive interview with the Herald on Sunday, Geoff has spoken of the lasting impact the day has had on him, saying the "hero" tag he and his daughter had been labelled was something he wasn't comfortable wearing.
"One of the most awkward things is people say 'You are a hero'," he said.
"I see a hero being someone who runs back into a burning building, someone who does something dangerous. For me, I never felt that that was what I did ... we just helped people.
"Some of the survivors that we are in touch that they tell us, 'You saved our life, we would have died without you there', I will accept that they will feel that I am a hero. I disagree with it, but I will let them state it."
Twenty-three people were taken from the island to the boat, including some who were "massively burnt" and critically injured.
When paramedics later arrived on the boat, after being dropped off by a Coast Guard boat, they continued helping.
For the first month after the tragedy, Geoff said what he had witnessed had remained "very raw and fresh".
Almost three months on, he said life had mostly "moved on", but there were still moments when he felt "a bit of me is still stuck back there".
"There are things that trigger, that just pull you back. And at that point it never feels like it is three months, it still seems very fresh.
"One of the things my wife said was that you will never be the same person.
"And on reflection she is right. It has changed us forever. But I have a choice of how much I let it define me."
While he witnessed "horrific" sights, he said his priority at the time had been to simply do whatever he could to help.
"Looking back it probably feels like it was almost a part of it that the brain didn't accept as real," he said.
"Yeah it was horrific what we saw, but it doesn't feel like that to me."
Hopkins said he believed his daughter had the same outlook, adding that her "intensive" tertiary studies were something that she had sunk her energies into.
Geoff and Lillani were on a White Island Tours vessel several hundred metres off-shore when the island erupted
They were first alerted to the catastrophe when they heard a "gasp across the boat".
Shortly afterwards all passengers were told by the captain to get inside the cabin of the boat.
After sitting down, Geoff – a pastor at Hamilton's Arise Church – said he felt "something deep inside me ... an urge to help".
He approached the captain who told him to stay where he was "because we don't know what we are dealing with".
Several minutes later the first boat load of injured was rushed to the White Island Tours ship.
As the inflatable neared the ship, a "distressed" crew member came running past Geoff with first aid kits and dropped one.
"I picked it up and as I gave it to her I said, 'We are first aid trained, can we help?'. She said, 'We need all the help we can get'.
"That was the permission I needed to go and do whatever I could do. [But] we had no idea of what we were going to walk into, but we knew we needed to do something to help."
Geoff had previously undergone extensive first aid training in the UK from a former army medic. His daughter had trained locally.
He described the next two hours as "a blur".
"I had no idea over time scale, I was just so focused on what we were doing."
Despite the confronting scenes, Geoff said there was never any second thought to helping.
"I guess it really starts to strip down who you are as a person," he said.
"And also the thing that shapes that all together is my faith. I have a relationship with God that gives me a hope. So when there is no hope, and that boat was full of no hope, I was trying to share hope with those people.
"I don't particularly want to be in the same situation again, but I would do [the same thing]."
He said he was "super proud" of Lillani for the way he conducted herself.
Tomorrow Geoff will think of the tragedy's survivors and those who lost their lives, and also their families.
He added the interactions he has had with survivors, and their families, who had contacted him to thank him and Lillani for their selfless actions would also help long-term.
"That contact with people who have pulled through, some of them are still in hospital, that has been so, so helpful for our recovery," he said.
"Our lasting memory had been seeing people offloaded off the dock at Whakatāne, they were taken away in an ambulance and that was it.
"They are now walking and eating as opposed to nearly dying."