Woman who survived volcanic eruption graduates from ODU | SehndeWeb

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — There was a moment when she and her husband, Matt, were crouched behind a rock — holding hands and saying “I love you” as a storm of volcanic ash, rocks and acids engulfed them, turning a sunny afternoon into nightfall – that Lauren Urey was almost certain they weren’t going to make it safely out of the South Pacific island.

“I felt like I was going to be buried alive,” she recalled. “I thought there was no way to survive this.”

Although others visiting New Zealand’s White Island perished when the island’s volcano erupted on December 9, 2019, the Ureys did indeed survive, although they suffered horrific burns, a nightmarish rescue and months – and now years – of surgeries, treatments and scarring.

Trying to get back to their old life, the Ureys went back to work and moved into a new home in Chesterfield County, and on May 7 they celebrated another milestone on the long road home: Lauren, 35, graduated from Old Dominion University with a degree in medical laboratory science.

“A great day,” Lauren said.

This is Lauren’s second bachelor’s degree; she graduated from Radford University with a degree in marketing in 2010. However, finding a job with long-term prospects proved difficult in a shaky economy, so she shifted gears and turned to the medical field for a career. She earned an associate’s degree in medical laboratory technology at Reynolds Community College, which helped her land a job in the field.

After taking a semester off, she enrolled in ODU’s online medical laboratory science graduation program, which she started in fall 2019.

In October of that year, she and Matt got married (“We met on Match.com,” she says. “We’re one of those success stories”) and planned a honeymoon in Australia. and in New Zealand. She received permission from her teachers to take her final exams early, and she and Matt left the day after Thanksgiving.

They started their journey in Australia and then took a Royal Caribbean cruise, making several stops in New Zealand. On December 9, they went on a shore excursion to New Zealand’s White Island, about 30 miles from New Zealand’s North Island in the Bay of Plenty, to observe a volcano up close. asset.

According to The New York Times, an online promotion for the tour urged tourists to “get closer to the drama”. Gas masks help you get up close to roaring steam vents, bubbling pits of mud, hot volcanic currents and the incredible steaming acid lake.

There was no mention, however, Matt Urey recalled, that the New Zealand agency which monitors geological activity in the country had reported increased activity at the volcano for several weeks and raised the alert level. to 2 on a scale of 0 to 5. Two is “moderate to intensified volcanic unrest”, while 3, 4 and 5 are levels of eruptions.

“They didn’t tell us the volcano was already at level two,” he said. “It was never communicated to us. I only found out after I woke up (from a medically induced coma). We definitely wouldn’t have gone to this island if we had known.

Lauren agreed, saying, “We are definitely not adventurous people. We’re not the type to go skydiving or anything like that. We are a very, very boring couple.

They thought the trip to the island would be “a cool, pretty quiet thing,” she said, recalling a brochure that advised people in wheelchairs not to take the trip.

“It didn’t seem like that adventurous,” she said.


The Ureys filed suit against Royal Caribbean. A trial is scheduled for October 24, according to one of the couple’s attorneys at a Miami law firm.

The Ureys said their visiting contingent was split into two groups. They were part of the first group that walked to the edge of the crater to see. They headed down as the second group approached the crater. A few minutes later, when the Ureys were halfway up the hill, the volcano erupted. One of the other tourists said, “Hey, everyone, look!” A fungus of black ash began to rise from the crater. A tour guide shouted, “Everyone, run!

Lauren recalled, “I just had a sinking feeling in my stomach.”

They found a rock that offered minimal shelter. Rocks pelted them and “black smoke and ash was coming out everywhere,” she said. “I was holding my husband’s hand and screaming and telling him how much I loved him.” It felt like an eternity, she said, but they later learned the rash only lasted about two minutes.

Trapped in a black fog and already badly burned, they struggled to get back to the water. Lauren fell several times; on at least one occasion, his right hand entered thick, burning ash, badly burning his palm. She has had numerous hand surgeries, the most recent of which took place last week.

They made it to a dinghy, which took them back to the larger tour boat and a painful 90-minute journey to the mainland, their scorched skin exposed to the sun and salt water. Lauren, who lost consciousness during the journey, was the first passenger to get off the boat as she was in the most critical condition.

She was taken to the burns unit of an Auckland hospital. Matt was taken to a hospital in Christchurch, over 600 miles away. Lauren was burned on 23% of her body, Matt on 53% of his. The doctors placed them both in artificial comas, she for almost three weeks and he for 12 days. They would not see each other again until February, back in Richmond, at the VCU Medical Center.

As badly as they were injured, in many ways they were lucky. Most of the second tour group had just arrived at the crater rim when it erupted. A total of 22 people were killed that day, including 20 visitors and two tour guides.


The return to life that the Ureys have known has been long and, at times, agonizingly slow. Along with therapy and other treatments, Lauren underwent more than two dozen surgeries, averaging one a month, mostly at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She hopes to be done with the surgeries by the end of the year.

They both bear scars from the experience. Lauren struggles with post-traumatic stress and depression; Matt, 38, a former avid runner, can no longer run because he suffers from heat intolerance: his body can’t cool down properly because his grafted skin doesn’t sweat.

“Summers are pretty tough for me,” he said.

However, in some ways their progress has been remarkable.

Both went back to work long ago: Lauren as a medical lab technician for Bon Secours Richmond Health System, Matt as a mechanical engineer at DuPont where he works, ironically, with flame retardant fibers.

Returning to work at the hospital during COVID-19 was risky for Lauren as she developed a lung infection from the rash, and COVID samples passed through the lab where she worked daily.

“It was very stressful,” she said. “But we were understaffed, and honestly I love what I do. I love helping people and I love keeping busy.

She only took a semester off from ODU before returning to school. For her perseverance, she received one of the first scholarships funded by the Commonwealth Transfusion Foundation, which emphasized that in addition to traditional students, they also wanted to support medical laboratory technicians pursuing their bachelor’s degree.

Urey’s graduation also means a promotion to her position as a clinical laboratory scientist, she said.

She can’t wait to put her surgeries in the rearview mirror, so she and Matt can start a family. She is determined not to let what happened on White Island dictate the rest of her life.

“I want to prove to everyone…that just because something horrible happens to you doesn’t mean your whole life has to change,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It didn’t stop me. It didn’t stop my husband.

“It was horrible what happened, but we weren’t going to let it ruin what we had. We’re determined not to let this be the end of the world for us.

Leave a Comment