It began with a plume of brilliant white smoke, billowing silently from the volcano’s rugged crater before mushrooming into an ominous black cloud.
By the time their tour guide had yelled at them to take cover it was too late for newlyweds Matthew and Lauren Urey.
The couple from Richmond, Virginia, were soon engulfed in a suffocating fog of molten ash, scorching their flesh, pummeling them with debris and plunging their dream honeymoon into a living hell.
‘My body was literally sizzling,’ said Lauren, 33, fighting back tears in an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com.
‘I was holding Matt’s hand and I just kept telling him I loved him because I thought it was only seconds before we would both die.’
Matthew, 36, added: ‘It was darker than the darkest nights you’ve ever seen. It was scalding hot, agonizing, we were getting pelted with rocks.
‘I actually thought I had gone blind because I couldn’t see a thing. I touched my face afterwards expecting my eyes to be gone. I had forgotten I had sunglasses on and they were completely covered in dust.’
It’s been six months since the brave couple escaped the terrifying eruption on New Zealand’s White Island, a rocky outcrop that sits atop one of the world’s most active volcanoes.
The day-long excursion was supposed to be the highlight of a 12-night Royal Caribbean cruise taking in the sights and natural beauty of Australia and New Zealand.
But today the couple are suing for negligence over the December 9 tragedy, which claimed the lives of 21 people, including 19 vacationers from the luxurious Ovation of the Seas ocean liner.
They argue in a new legal filing, shared exclusively with DailyMail.com, that Royal Caribbean had ample warning the volcano was dangerously close to erupting – yet failed to alert passengers who paid $259 each to go ashore.
Similarly, guests were never told the tiny volcanic island, 30 miles from New Zealand’s North Island, had erupted multiple times in the previous ten years, most recently in December 2016.
The couple say this amounts to an unforgivable ‘failure to warn’ by Royal Caribbean and co-defendant ID Tours, the local New Zealand firm contracted to run the excursions.
‘Our lives are changed forever. We are never going to be the people we were before this happened, we are never going to look the same,’ said Matthew.
‘Our honeymoon, our first year of married life was robbed from us. And all because Royal Caribbean wanted money over protecting our safety.’
Matthew, a Pennsylvania native and Lauren, raised in Virginia, married last October and flew to Australia two months later to embark on their ‘trip of a lifetime’ cruise.
‘I’d always had a fascination with Australia and New Zealand, ever since I was a kid,’ Matthew told DailyMail.com.
‘We had been so busy organizing the wedding that it made sense to let Royal Caribbean do most of the thinking for us.’
A spokesman for Royal Caribbean told DailyMail.com: ‘We continue to support the needs of those affected by this tragic incident.
‘We respectfully decline further comment while the investigation is still proceeding.’
For Matthew, a 36-year-old engineer and science enthusiast, the standout excursion was the seven-hour tour of White Island, the 800-acre tip of a 150,000-year-old submerged volcano which erupted continuously from 1975 to 2000.
Promotional materials promised an ‘unforgettable’ opportunity to ‘get up close to roaring steam vents, bubbling pits of mud, hot volcanic streams and the amazing lake of steaming acid.’
But just how close, Matthew and Lauren – now scarred from head to toe and facing at least a dozen more surgeries in the coming months – could never have imagined.
They say they would never have gone to White Island if they had known that experts raised warning levels just three weeks earlier because of seismic activity and rising sulfur levels.
The suit, due to be filed in Miami District Court, states that New Zealand’s volcanic monitoring service, GeoNet, had increased its alert for White Island to 2, the highest number it can record before an actual eruption.
‘Monitored parameters show[ed] further increases in activity. Hazards on the island [were] now greater than during the past few weeks,’ a November 18 Volcanic Alert Bulletin is quoted as stating.
‘The patterns of signals [were] similar to those through the 2011-2016 period and suggest[ed] that Whakaari/White Island may be entering a period where eruptive activity is more likely than normal.’
The couple did note at the time that some parts of the island were closed off but Lauren, a medical laboratory technician, says their tour guide reassured them everything was safe.
‘It never even crossed my mind that Royal Caribbean would put anybody at risk on something that dangerous,’ added Matthew.
‘They should have just given us the information. There was no reason this had to happen.’
Lauren and Matthew say they were issued with hard hats and respirators to ease the pungent smell of sulpher but no other protective gear.
After a 90-minute boat ride with 20 or so fellow passengers they hiked to the volcano’s center, an acidic lake in a huge crater, taking photos and marveling at the rugged Mars-like landscape.
It was only when they headed back to the bay that a fellow passenger pointed out the plume of ash rising above their heads.
‘It seemed like nothing at the time. You expect to hear an explosion, a lot of noise, but all we could see was this little plume of ash rising up in complete silence,’ Matthew recalled.
‘But that’s when we heard the tour guide yell, run.’
With no chance of outrunning the cloud, the couple huddled behind a rock as the black wall of ash and embers barreled towards them.
‘I thought we were going to be buried alive and nobody would ever find us,’ said Lauren. ‘It was the most terrifying moment of my life.’
Matthew estimates they were inside the molten cloud for around 90 seconds.
‘It felt like an eternity. My respirator was completely fouled over from the dust so I couldn’t breathe anymore. Lauren’s respirator had gotten knocked off so she was actually breathing the ash,’ he said.
‘I yelled out afterwards to see if she was still alive and by some miracle she responded.’
Against the odds, they were both able to stagger back to shore, wading through ankle deep dust that felt like ‘walking on the moon’.
Back on the boat Matthew, who suffered burns to 54 percent of his body, tried to ease the crippling pain by dousing his wounds with water.
‘Matt was wearing shorts and his legs were unbelievably burnt. I had tripped and landed on my hands. They are still in pretty bad shape,’ said Lauren.
‘I was drifting in and out of consciousness. Matt was worried I wouldn’t make it off the boat.’
Taken to two different hospitals, the pair were separated for the next two months, Lauren too distressed by her wounds to even let her husband of three months see her on video calls.
The couple were flown back to the US in late January. They are both at home recovering but their medical bills continue to balloon.
To date they have both had a dozen surgeries each, with a similar number or more scheduled for the next six months to lessen the scarring and help their mobility.
For Lauren, still battling a lung infection, she is reminded of her brush with death every time she looks in the mirror.
‘We were on our honeymoon, I was there celebrating my love for my new husband. Then in a few seconds my entire body changed,’ she told DailyMail.com.
‘I refused to do any FaceTimes when we were in the hospitals because I didn’t want Matt to see me. It was very shocking when they had to shave off my hair. I have struggled emotionally.
‘This is the time when Matt and I were going to start to have a family but obviously we’ve had to put all that on hold.
‘But Matt is the one person who understands my feelings. He doesn’t get frustrated when I cry or get emotional.
‘I cannot imagine doing this by myself – he is my everything.’
Matthew and Lauren accuse Royal Caribbean of negligence, misrepresenting the dangers posed by the volcano and failing to protect them from an ‘unreasonably dangerous’ and ‘incompetently’ run excursion.
‘Even a cursory look into White Island would have revealed that the volcano was active numerous times in the past ten years,’ their suit contends.
They say Royal Caribbean should have been especially aware of the risks because of a similar accident a year and a half earlier in which 23 people were injured when the Hawaiian volcano, Kilauea, erupted during a tour.
‘This incident should have been enough for RCCL to realize that tours to active volcanoes were unreasonably dangerous,’ the filing adds.
‘RCCL should have canceled all excursions to active volcanoes then, instead of waiting for dozens of its own passengers to be injured or killed.’
The couple’s attorney Michael Winkleman told DailyMail.com that Matthew and Lauren and the numerous other victims deserve justice over the horrifying incident, which is still being probed by New Zealand authorities.
The majority of the dead were in a different Royal Caribbean group, closer to the crater when it erupted. A further 38 people suffered severe burns.
‘Multiple similar Volcanic Alert Bulletins were released and available in the weeks and days leading up to the ill-fated excursion, yet at no time did Royal Caribbean provide any warning or notice regarding any increased likelihood of volcanic activity,’ said Winkleman, of maritime law firm Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman.
‘In fact, Royal Caribbean did precisely the opposite. Instead of giving a warning to its passengers to make them aware of the increased danger, by failing to give any notice regarding the danger, passengers were reasonably led to believe that the excursion to the volcano was safe and without any danger.’