The teenage tour guide who suffered burns to 80 percent of his body in the White Island eruption has opened up about the hour and a half that changed his life forever – and the challenge of the months that have followed.
The 9th of December 2019 was Jake Milbank’s 19th birthday. It was also one day away from his anniversary as a White Island tour guide. It should have been a day filled with happiness.
But on Whakaari, that all changed. At 2:11pm the volcano erupted, spewing volcanic ash high into the air. There were 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption – 21 of those would be killed.
Dozens more people would be critically injured in the violent explosion. Milbank says when the volcano exploded it was fight or flight.
“You know what you’ve gotta do to survive and that’s all I was really thinking about doing at the time,” he told Newshub.
The teen suffered excruciating burns to 80 percent of his body and was loaded onto a tour boat with adrenaline coursing through his veins.
It took an hour and a half until he made it to paramedics, back on land.
“[I was] just trying to stay awake, and constantly reminding myself and having others around me reminding me that we were nearly back and it was all gonna be all good,” he said.
That shared strength continued in the hospital. The survivors would pass each other in the ward on the way to rehab sessions and find comfort in knowing they weren’t alone.
“Even just being able to talk to someone, actually understand what you’re talking about, it does make a big difference.”
Milbank says he will forever be grateful to all the people who stepped in to provide care and first aid for him and the other victims of the eruption.
“It’s all of the people that were there, helping, they were all doing their best to help us, we’ll all be grateful forever for that [because] without them there’s a good chance that some of us wouldn’t actually be here,”
His hands are scarred now and show just a portion of what he’s been through since December – but finding the positive still seems to come so easily.
“It’s definitely been a challenge, but I mean, all it’s really gonna do is build character,” he told Newshub through laughter.
It’s not until you see how far he’s come that you realise Jake Millbank’s strength of character is already greater than most – he says he won’t look back at the eruption with negativity.
“There’s nothing I can do about it except try my hardest to get back to where I was before the eruption, there’s no point at looking at it negatively,”
He spent four months in hospital. Of those four months, two weeks were spent in a coma. Milbank endured 25 separate surgeries to repair his blistered skin.
He and his family credit his remarkable recovery to a team of world-class medical staff, including one surgeon who travelled from Australia and another from Toronto.
With burns as severe as his Milbank was told it was a matter of when not if he would get an infection.
But surgeons used a new material, called Biodegradable Temporizing Matrix to cover the burns and protect the blood vessels.
“It was cutting edge stuff”, his dad Steve Milbank says. Miraculously, the teenager recovered without a single infection.
“To be able to walk out of hospital in less than four months is almost unheard of,” said his father.
Out of hospital life is now a blur of appointments – massage, therapy, physio – all to earn back the most basic of movements.
Milbank says progress is hard work but it’s paying off. “Every day you notice ‘oh I can take my sock off a little bit further’ or something like that, it is pretty cool to see,”
He’s back at home in Whakatane where he can stand on the beach and watch Whakaari on the horizon.
He says despite the trauma he would like to go back.
“It does send shivers down the spine a little bit, gives you the goosebumps, I wouldn’t get too close, but yeah I definitely would like to go and have another look.”
The flower wall where members of the community left their well wishes at the triage area where he was taken has long since gone but the support has never faltered.
Milbank received $150,000 in public donations but says it’s the words from around the world that have kept his fighting spirit alive.
A young man who just wants to get back fishing and hunting with his mates again and embrace all that life has to offer after it was so nearly taken away.