U.S. couple files lawsuit after barely surviving deadly New Zealand volcano eruption: “We’re very angry”


CBS News

An American couple who survived a deadly volcanic eruption in New Zealand is filing a lawsuit Thursday against a tour company and cruise line. The eruption of the White Island volcano in December killed 21 people, mostly tourists.

Matt and Lauren Urey claim Royal Caribbean and ID Tours New Zealand Ltd. did not warn them of heightened volcanic activity on the island before the excursion.

The couple met on match.com and got married two years later. Then, this past December, they took a honeymoon cruise to Australia and New Zealand.

“We started off having the time of our lives, and then it just turned out to be just hell,” Lauren told “CBS This Morning” co-host Anthony Mason.

On December 9, they took an excursion to the White Island volcano, snapping pictures near the crater. They were heading back to their boat when the volcano erupted. They heard the tour guide yell, “run,” and in less than a minute, they were engulfed in scalding ash and smoke. They took cover behind a rock.

“It was just pitch black. You couldn’t see anything in front of you, and you could just feel your skin burning, getting pelted with rocks. It was terrifying,” Matt said.

Matt said he and Lauren couldn’t see each other.

“She was holding my wrist, but I had no idea other than that that she was there,” he said. “I genuinely thought that was the end of my life, and I thought that was the end of Lauren’s life.”

Severely burned and barely breathing, Matt and Lauren found their way to a tour boat, which rushed them to the mainland. They ended up in hospitals 600 miles apart.

“The hospital that we originally were at … couldn’t handle all the burn victims,” Lauren said, adding that Matt refused treatment until she was treated. “That’s just the kind of person he is.”

Both were put in medically induced comas and underwent skin grafts and plastic surgeries. It would be nearly two months before they were reunited back in the U.S.

Asked if she was grateful to be alive, Lauren said, “If you want me to be honest, at times I kind of wished — it would be easier if I wasn’t.”

“I am now,” she said. “But at the time, when I was in New Zealand … I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t go to the bathroom by myself, I couldn’t brush my teeth, I couldn’t use the phone … and I just was wondering if I would ever be normal again.”

Now home in Virginia, the Ureys are going through painful laser procedures to increase mobility and break down their scars.

“We actually sleep in separate beds because we just — between the tossing and turning and general discomfort, there’s no way we can share a bed right now,” Matt said.

“It sucks. It just sucks,” Lauren said. “I don’t like the person I see when I look in the mirror. I don’t like, obviously, my burns, the scars. I don’t like my short hair. I don’t feel beautiful. … I’m afraid he doesn’t think I’m beautiful, which he tells me repeatedly he does but — it’s just really hard.”

The Ureys are suing both Royal Caribbean and the New Zealand tour company. Other victims and families are also pursuing legal action.

“They needed to have done a heck of a lot more to warn these folks,” said maritime attorney Michael Winkleman. “When they’re going to offer a shore excursion to their passengers, they have a duty to reasonably inspect the excursion to make sure that it’s safe. … But what Royal Caribbean, like all cruise lines try to do, is say, ‘Hey wait a minute, these are independent contractors, we don’t have anything to do with it,’ but I’ve never seen a situation where the facts actually support that.”

In the weeks prior to their trip, New Zealand’s GeoNet agency raised the island’s volcanic alert level was raised to 2. Level 3 means an eruption.

“Had we known that, there is absolutely no way we would have ever stepped foot on that island,” Matt said. He added they may need surgeries once a month for the next one to two years.

“We’re very angry. I mean, we’re very, very angry about this,” Lauren said.

Lauren said she can see normalcy “a little bit” now.

“I owe it all to him,” she said about Matt. “I really do. He’s been my rock. He’s been everything to me.”

The Ureys said they plan to redo their honeymoon in the U.S., possibly next year.

In a statement to CBS News, Royal Caribbean said, “We respectfully decline further comment while the investigation is still proceeding.” ID Tours New Zealand Ltd. did not immediately return CBS News’ request for comment.