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EXCLUSIVE: Stephanie Browitt, survivor of the deadly White Island volcano eruption, speaks about finding her inner courage

As well as how the memories of her father and sister help her daily.
stephanie browitt

Stephanie Browitt has her mother’s luminous smile and her father’s sense of humour. Three and a half years after the darkest day of her life, she’s beginning to rediscover both.

She says it’s the love of her family that has helped her endure. “We’ve always wanted to bring each other joy,” Stephanie says. “My favourite moments were when we were together, eating dinner at a restaurant, laughing.”

“There was never a silent moment in our house,” adds mum Marie – who, while declining to be part of today’s photo shoot, has agreed to speak publicly for the first time about the disaster and its aftermath.

“Our house was full of laughter, it was full of food, it was full of smells, it was full of music. It was a noisy home because it was a welcoming home.”

Mother and daughter entwine their hands. Stephanie leans into Marie and they gently touch their heads together. They have always been close, but the past few years have fused them into a tight, unbreakable unit.

Marie’s husband and Stephanie’s father, Paul, and their younger daughter and sister, Krystal, were lost in the White Island volcano eruption that claimed 22 lives. Stephanie suffered severe, extensive burns, but she is slowly healing.

She faces a lifetime of operations but, sitting in the morning light of a Melbourne cafe, her big blue eyes are full of warmth as she talks of her gratitude and ambitions.

stephanie browitt

“I’m still trying to figure out my own life and strategies to cope with what I’ve been through, but I try my best,” she says, with a tentative smile.

“I’ve just learnt to take it one step at a time. You need goals so you can at least focus on something, so you’re not left in despair, and left to think about everything as a whole and feel overwhelmed. You’ve got something to push towards, to focus on.”

Marie, protective and proud, smiles at her daughter’s bravery. “I’ve seen what her resilience and a fight to survive can achieve,” she says emphatically.

“I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it. She inspires me now. She holds me up. She’s my miracle. Her determination is remarkable. It really is.”

For Marie, the conversation is difficult. The reason she has finally broken her silence is to celebrate how far Stephanie has come, but still, it’s a painful conversation. They have been tested to the limits of what the spirit can withstand.

“But I always remind Stephanie that the alternative was never a choice,” Marie says. “We have to fight.”

An aspiring actress, Steph had just completed a year of training at the Howard Fine Acting Studio when she was caught in the eruption on December 9, 2019.

Krystal was working towards a career as a veterinarian nurse. The Browitt family’s cruise to New Zealand was to be a celebration. Marie stayed aboard when Stephanie, Krystal and Paul took up the opportunity to tour White Island, or Te Puia o Whakaari – the dramatic volcano – as it is known in Māori.

Steam billows from vents in the earth. Inside the open crater is a simmering volcanic lake. It erupted in 2016, 2013 and 2012. It is New Zealand’s most active cone volcano.

In the weeks before the Browitts’ visit, New Zealand’s geological hazard monitoring system, GeoNet, increased White Island’s alert from Level One to Level Two, meaning the volcano had entered a period of “moderate to heightened unrest”. Level Three and above indicates an eruption. However, the service warns, “an eruption may occur at any level”.

The Browitts had no idea of the danger as they climbed to the rim of the crater. They snapped photos, wearing gas masks that allowed them to get close to the steaming vents and bubbling lake.

It was around 2pm and it seemed like a perfect afternoon. The sky was blue, but beneath their feet, pressure was beginning to build. The Browitts were on their way back down to the beach when black smoke began to pour out of the mouth of the volcano.

Paul saw it and shouted, “Run!” A column of searing hot steam and ash shot up four kilometres into the air. The island was engulfed in a cloud of billowing black and white smoke. All 44 souls on the island ran for their lives. Stephanie remembers lying on the beach and hearing her father shouting her name.

The first responders were helicopter pilots, Tom Storey, Mark Law and Jason Hill. Jason told 60 Minutes that Paul said, “Take my daughters first.”

white island eruption

Stephanie was evacuated and placed in a medical coma. When she woke up in Melbourne’s Alfred Hospital, she had burns to 70 per cent of her body. “Basically, all layers of my epidermis were burnt through,” she says.

Paul was also in hospital, but Krystal hadn’t made it. Marie initially told Stephanie that Krystal was in another hospital. Stephanie was fragile and traumatised. Marie didn’t want to crush her daughter with sadness. In January, Paul succumbed to his injuries.

“One by one I lost everyone,” says Marie. “If it wasn’t for [the doctors] saying, ‘There is a chance for Stephanie … ’” she falters. “When they said, ‘There is a chance,’ I thought, I can’t afford to let go. I survived that period by thinking of Stephanie.”

She touches her necklace. It’s a heart engraved with four names: Paul, Marie, Krystal and Stephanie.

Stephanie’s time in hospital was agonising. Her right flank, her legs and her back took the brunt of the heat and force. Her right ear and fingers needed to be amputated down to the second joint.

She required skin grafts on her face and scalp. A deep cut on her left arm had to be stapled. She underwent dozens of surgeries. Her wounds had to be cleaned and re-dressed every day, and then every second day.

It was such a harrowing procedure that Stephanie had to be under sedation.

“During those early days, all I could focus on was the pain I was going through – physically, mentally – and what I had to do to get through,” Stephanie says. “I’m really thankful that I have such an amazing mum because she really is my rock. I love her so much. She was all I had to cling onto while recovering.”

Visitors were one of the few pleasures Stephanie could look forward to. When COVID swept the globe, she lost that small comfort.

“I had lost my form of communication and just being able to feel like a normal person,” she says. Even her doctors and nurses were hidden behind personal protective equipment.

“There were moments that I wanted to give up and I didn’t know why I was doing all this,” Stephanie says. “I had my mum trying to remind me, ‘Your dad and your sister would want you to keep fighting and to keep pushing and to be the best that you can be. They want the best for you.’”

Marie wrote a message for Stephanie on a poster, urging her on and surrounding her in love.

“Get well soon my brave sweetheart daughter. I love you with all that I am,” Marie scrawled. “Your smile lights up my entire world.”

Marie pleaded with the staff at The Alfred to let her bring Stephanie’s beloved pet dog, Arlo, in for a visit. “They said, ‘The dog’s not possible’,” Marie explains. “I said, ‘She’s giving up, please. I’ve got to bring him in. There’s got to be a way’.”

The staff at the Alfred allowed Arlo to visit the garden. Stephanie was scared he wasn’t going to recognise her. “He was in the garden and he started to jump.” Seeing Arlo filled her with happiness and she set herself the goal of making it home for Arlo’s first birthday. It was not an easy task.

Sometimes it felt like the painkillers were doing nothing. Some days left her screaming in pain. She had to relearn how to walk. One day, Marie brought in a phone. “I think she realised I needed some form of connection,” Stephanie says. There was an added benefit. “I needed rehabilitation. I had lost all my fingers, so I was told it would be good for my fine motor skills to have my fingers moving around.”

stephanie browitt

At first, her nurses had to type messages for her. “Towards the end of my hospital stay,I thought, why not share something? It might be cathartic. It might help me to be able to express myself and share what I’m going through. I didn’t really have an expectation of anything. It was just for me.”

She posted some thoughts, and the response was huge. “I was getting comments from people all over the place. It encouraged me. It gave me some hope back.”

It gave her back something else she loved too: Storytelling. Before studying acting, Stephanie had completed a degree in media, film and TV.

“I’ve always been a creative person who loves to put things together and use my imagination,” she says. “So, I continued to post and to share things. I would be feeding off people’s positivity, their encouragement, their support and their kindness. I realised I was able to help people who not only had gone through something like burns but anyone who had suffered hardships in their life.”

It was a small step, but it would prove invaluable. Then, on May 22, 2020, Stephanie achieved the milestone she’d longed for – she was finally discharged from hospital.

“I just wanted to go home, be back in my own bed, have my mum with me and be where all of our memories were,” she says. “But then once I was home … my sister and dad’s missing presence was all the more noticeable. It was a huge struggle.”

She had to come to terms with losing half of her family: Her hilarious dad; her determined sister. “Krystal was one of the most strong-willed people I’ll ever know. She’s a huge inspiration to me,” Stephanie says.

“She had a cute, cheeky side to her.” She recalls playing laser tag on a family holiday. “I was asking my sister, ‘Can you tell me what I’m meant to be doing? Because I have no idea.’ Krystal said, ‘I’ll tell you in a second.’ The countdown’s beginning and I’m like, ‘Krystal, please can you tell me?’” Everything went dark as the game began.

“My sister just shoots me straight in the chest, laughs and runs off.”

stephanie browitt

These memories are easier to speak about now. When she first came home from hospital, the loss was devastating.

Yet in this bleakest of times, the online support again buoyed Steph. They also helped her come to terms with the compression garments she had to wear so her skin could heal.

“They left me in pain. They left me crying. They left me feeling embarrassed. Not just because of the fear of being judged or looked at or standing out, but also because they made it difficult to do things. I had to be careful when I chose what to eat when I was out because the mask was so tight that I could barely open my mouth. I did go out and eat pasta at one point and realised that was a huge mistake because I got sauce everywhere.”

Stephanie has a remarkable ability to find the positive in her daily life, but it has taken time to build that courage and confidence. When she first left hospital, she was terrified even to leave the house.

“Going outside and being seen by others was a very big deal. It was very scary. I knew I would stand out,” she says.

The videos Stephanie shares are a mix of informative and expositional. In one, she draws a black outline around the skin grafts on her face, explaining that the scars represent her fight to survive. She urges self-acceptance and pride. She supports DonateLife, the organ and tissue donation network, and The Alfred Hospital.

As she looks to the future, Stephanie is finding her voice. She writes, films and edits videos about her life as a survivor. She has touched people with her story, and in turn, the chorus of supporters around the globe has helped her ride out the dark days that still plague her.

Remarkably, many of her videos are suffused with brightness and humour. This, Stephanie says, is a legacy of her late father. “I try to keep that sense of humour in the way I share my story because I know my dad would be wanting me to remember that. I also think without humour in our lives, we wouldn’t be able to cope,” she says.

“My dad was one of the best people when it came to cheering us all up. He would always bring laughter into the home. It would be very hard to get through life without some form of laughter. He is my reminder of that.”

The Weekly first met Stephanie on the night she made her first public appearance as an ambassador for skincare brand La Roche-Posay, whose products she uses to help her very sensitive skin.

Steph has had to learn to be vigilant with skincare and sunscreen. When the company approached her about sharing her story she was glad to do it because she believed she could help other people with burns and scars.

stephanie browitt in hosital with friends visiting

She flew to Sydney for the event with her stomach full of butterflies. As she told her story on stage a breathless audience hung on her every word. Afterwards, Stephanie was glowing.

“That was such a huge moment for me,” she says. “It was overwhelming in such a good way because I realised I can do it. I’m glad that I’m opening myself up to these new experiences.”

Despite how far she has come, both she and Marie are still taking each difficult day as it comes, and Steph says sometimes it can be a case of two steps forward, one step back.

“My emotions are still coming in waves,” Stephanie says. “It will vary day-to-day. I had a nightmare very recently and it left me in tears. I woke Mum because I was that distraught.”

“She couldn’t get out of it,” Marie says, her eyes filling with tears.

“It was a bad one,” Stephanie nods. She’s hoping to forge a career in film and television and, daunting as it is, she has a self-confidence and a sense of purpose that she didn’t have before.

stephanie browitt

During The Weekly’s photo shoot, she exchanges constant jokes with our photographer. Marie, ever by her side, marvels at her progress.

“When I look at how far Stephanie has come today, she’s not where she wanted to be, but she’s getting there, and I hope she does achieve her goals,” she says. “I’m so proud of her and I know that her father and sister Krystal would also be very proud of her fighting spirit. She has this drive to survive and hopefully, one day, thrive.”

Marie watches as her daughter picks some outfits. Slipping into a silk dress and a loose, wool coat, Steph is beautiful, inside and out.

“Beforehand, I was shy,” she says. “You had to get to know me before I would open up. I was always worried about what other people would think.”

Krystal used to tell her that nobody would get anywhere in life if they worried about what other people thought. “She’d be the one teaching us to just do what makes you happy. So, I always think about that,” Steph adds.

“I have realised that, when push comes to shove, I can do things and I’m enjoying putting myself out there in these circumstances that I never once would have imagined I was capable of.

“I’ve had to overcome so much more than I ever anticipated. I know the old Steph would never have thought she’d be able to speak in front of a live audience, and now I’ve realised that I can. I didn’t realise I had this strength inside of me. I want to make my dad and sister proud. That’s always in the back of my mind, in everything I do. I don’t want what’s happened to me to hold me back.”

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