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Newlyweds Matthew Urey and Lauren Barham were standing on New Zealand’s White Island Volcano in early December when they heard someone yell, “Look.”
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Urey glanced up to see an ash cloud ascending from the volcanic crater and thought it interesting enough to snap a picture. He didn’t realize at the time it would be one of his last before his and his wife’s lives changed forever.
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“I took a picture, a couple other people took a picture, and then heard our tour guide yell, 'Run,’” Urey recalled to FOX Business. “And that's when I just dropped everything and took off running as fast as we could … I was sheer panic at that point."
Urey said they had roughly 45 seconds to a minute before the cloud caught up to them. The couple, wearing face respirators and hard hats given to them by the tour company, took cover behind some nearby rocks, Urey said, but they were soon in complete darkness.
“This cloud overtook us and completely eliminated all light. It was pitch black,” he recalled in painstaking detail. “Lauren was holding onto my wrist, but I had no concept she was there.”
Photo taken by Matthew Urey on Dec. 9, 2019, just moments before the White Island Volcano erupted (Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman P.A)
Urey, 36, and the 33-year-old Barham were on their honeymoon, which included a Royal Caribbean cruise through New Zealand at the time.
They are now suing the cruise line and the New Zealand tour company for what their attorneys from Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman call a "preventable tragedy."
Court papers and Urey himself say they found out about the excursion in a brochure provided to them by the cruise line and bought the tickets through Royal Caribbean.
They never interacted with the New Zealand tour company until the day of the island excursion, and they were never warned that the volcano had erupted four times since 2000, the lawsuit states.
Neither the cruise line nor the tour company told them that just weeks earlier, the volcano’s “alert level” had been escalated to a Level 2, according to the suit, which describes that as being “the highest level it can be when it is not erupting.” They only found out about the change in alert level when they overheard a tour guide telling someone else during the excursion.
"Royal Caribbean did nothing to warn them or notify them in any way, shape or form. They have a duty to warn them so that their customers can make an informed decision," said the couple's attorney, Michael Winkleman. "And like Matt and Lauren said, 'Had we known there was an increased risk, we never would have gone on it.'"
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In an emailed statement to FOX Business, a Royal Caribbean Cruise Line spokesperson said, “We continue to support the needs of those affected by this tragic incident. We respectfully decline further comment while the investigation is still proceeding.”
Matthew Urey and Lauren Barham on their wedding day, Oct. 18, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman P.A
On the morning of Dec. 9, 2019, the newlyweds took a 45-minute bus ride, then a 90-minute boat trip through rough seas before reaching the mountain for what they thought would be a "once in a lifetime" excursion.
Urey described to FOX Business how, hours later as they crouched behind rocks, the volcanic cloud brought on such darkness that he thought he was actually blind. With the cloud, came the sound of rocks “pinging” off Urey’s hard hat “endlessly,” he said.
“When it was over, I could just feel my skin burning,” he continued. “I reached up to touch my face expecting that my eyes were going to be gone.”
Then Barham’s mask slipped off her face.
“I didn't know this at the time but she had been yelling that she loved me,” Urey said. “She was breathing in the ash and she thought she was going to die, so she was yelling out that she loved me and that she needed help … it was agony.”
Of the 38 passengers aboard the excursion, 19 died as a result of the eruption. Two tour guides were also killed.
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Urey and Barham spent 10 and 16 days, respectively, in medically-induced comas. They were treated at different hospitals hundreds of miles apart from each other before what Urey described as a “tearful” reunion at a hospital in Richmond after returning from their nightmare months-long honeymoon.
“I've never been that happy in my life to see her and the nurses there were wonderful,” he said. “They actually had gotten a takeout meal from an Italian restaurant here in town for us …. They set aside a quiet little room for us to have dinner and just be reunited in peace for a bit.”
Now, eight months into their marriage, burns cover 54 percent of Urey’s body and 23 percent of Barham’s, court papers show.
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“We've kind of skipped over the whole newlywed phase,” Urey said.
The Richmond, Virginia couple's nighttime routine now includes scar and skin graft massages and stretches to prevent their skin from tightening, he said.
“We can't sleep in the same bed because we toss and turn so much from the discomfort of scars and grafts,” Urey continued. “It's radically changed our lives.”
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