A helicopter pilot testified in a New Zealand court on Thursday that he and some of his passengers were able to escape a deadly volcanic eruption in 2019 by jumping into the ocean.
“The water is what saved us,” Brian Depauw said, according to The Associated Press.
Depauw and his four passengers were on land at White Island, New Zealand’s most active volcano, when it erupted on December 9, 2019, killing 22 people. White Island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, is located north of the country’s North Island.
Depauw was testifying in a trial brought against several tourism companies and directors, who have been accused of failing to assess and mitigate the risk of an eruption and not properly warning tourists of the potential dangers.
Officials say the volcano had shown indications of a potential eruption in the weeks prior but that tour operators neglected to act.
The trial, which started Tuesday, is expected to last four months. Depauw said in court he was on a flight for the tour company Volcanic Air when the eruption occurred, AP reported.
Volcanic Air is not among the companies charged in the case. He and his passengers were on the land at the time and one asked if they should head back to the helicopter, but Depauw directed them to the ocean instead.
“I heard my customer saying should we run now? I looked behind me and saw the plume going up 1,000 or 2,000 feet (305 or 610 meters) high, I saw boulders and debris arcing toward us, so I said: ‘Run, run, run to the water. Follow me,'” Depauw explained in a video shown in court that was taken days after the eruption.
Two of his passengers did not make it to the water in time, became surrounded by the ash, and experienced severe burns. Depauw and the other two passengers were able to make it out unscathed thanks to the water.
“The minute I hit the water, it went black. The ash came and obviously hit us and I couldn’t see anything,” Depauw said, adding: “It would be a minute or two minutes. I was underwater trying to hold my breath as long as I could until I saw some light through the ash.”
Depauw testified that he thought in the case of an eruption there would be signs and enough time to evacuate.
He also said he was unaware the volcano had erupted as recently as 2016, though no one was injured in that shorter-lived eruption. White Island also experienced small eruptions in 2012 and 2013. Prior to that, the volcano was in near-constant eruption from 1975 to 2000.