Eels superfan recounts volcano horror that claimed son’s life
As paramedics frantically cut away at John Cozad's clothing, one thought crossed his mind, "don't ruin my Parramatta Eels shirt".
Ninety minutes before, at 1.59pm, John, 72, and his son Christopher, posed proudly side-by-side on New Zealand's White Island Volcano on December 9, 2019.
Then the volcano erupted.
It was the last photo taken of the father and son together.
Chris, 43, died five days later from injuries sustained during the eruption, along with 21 other people.
"There was a stretcher in front of the ambulance and as soon as I saw it, I just thought, somewhere to lay down, and I just blacked out… and that's the last thing I remember, except I did wake up when they were cutting my Eels T-shirt off and I said 'I really want that, please don't cut it'," John recalls.
"The nurse was just saying, 'yes love, we won't' as she's cutting it off."
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On Friday night, John and Beverley, his wife of 48 years, will receive the red carpet treatment at Bankwest Stadium when their beloved Eels take on the Sydney Roosters.
But the bright lights of an NRL match are a world away from the ash plume and pyroclastic surge that engulfed John and son Christopher on White Island, which left the pair fighting for their lives.
Remarkably, the pair captured on camera the volcano erupting at 2.11pm, seconds before realising the pyroclastic surge, which contains gas and volcanic material that can reach up to 1000 degrees, was coming their way.
"I just turned around and saw it, click click," John said.
"Suddenly it was exploding out, I thought I better hide.
"So we ran around a rock. Christopher was below me on the rock face we had been trying to walk around, he ran around and he got in front of me and he kept running.
"I was still behind this rock. The ground was like talcum powder from earlier eruptions.
"My left foot just went from under me and I just fell down and slipped on the talcum powder stuff. I thought I would just stay here. Christopher kept running."
As the air thickened and the sky darkened, molten volcanic rocks began pelting John, leaving him with burns to about 40 per cent of his body.
"I said the Lord's Prayer because I thought I was gone," John said.
"It was a minute long but it felt like an eternity.
"Then all these little pellets, they were red hot and it started hitting me in the forehead. They had given us a little mask if the sulphur fumes got too much.
"I remember my glasses fell off and I bent over to pick them up and the mask filled with these pellets but I put it up to my mouth, had to use it to breathe.
"Then it just rained down this ash, it was so thick, it was unbelievable.
"You couldn't see a thing.
"I was on my knee trying to breathe through this mask.
"Then all of a sudden it just cleared, crystal clear."
John and his family were five days into a 14-day cruise of New Zealand on Ovation of the Seas.
John and Christopher were two of the 38 people from the cruise doing a guided tour of the volcano.
In the weeks leading up to the eruption, the volcano had recorded heightened activity and its rating increased to a level two, indicating "moderate to heightened volcanic unrest".
"Then I had this thought… volcano… lava… so I hightailed it. I found Christopher just passed the rocks," John said.
"I touched him on the back, he shied away. He was stunned.
"He didn't seem to want to talk. I didn't know if he was burned in the throat. We walked back quickly to the wharf."
At the wharf, John and Christopher boarded a small boat which transported them and other injured tourists to Whakatane Hospital, a small regional hospital, which was quickly overwhelmed by the number of casualties.
Beverley, who had skipped the tour to shop on the mainland instead, rushed to Whakatane Hospital on hearing the news of the explosion to be with her husband and son.
"Christpher was on a stretcher lying on his side because his back was burned," Beverly said.
"He was normally a quietly spoken person but he was just talking so loudly about anything and everything.
"He was good enough to ring his wife.
"We walked away from Whakatane Hospital thinking how lucky we were that they were both alive.
"Next time we saw them they were both tubed up and Christopher never came out of it."
Despite being conscious when leaving the volcano, the pair fell gravely ill within hours of the eruption and were intubated and placed in induced comas before being transferred to Hutt Hospital in Wellington.
Christopher's condition quickly deteriorated as his kidneys and heart started to fail and was transferred to to the larger, Wellington Hospital.
An RAAF aircraft transported Christopher to Sydney's Concord Hospital on December 11. John joined his son at Concord Hospital the following day.
Doctors then discovered fluid on Christopher's brain and the family made the heartbreaking decision to turn off his life support machines, three days after arriving at Concord Hospital.
The Cozad family and Christopher's wife, Bianca, and their three children farewelled Christopher on December 22, while John was still fighting for his life in a coma.
Against all the odds, John opened his eyes for the first time on Christmas Day.
Christopher was never far from John's mind and soon Beverley realised he needed to know the tragic news about his son.
"He would mouth things… my daughters were better at understanding him than me. Then, I saw him mouth 'Christopher' and I said 'oh John you know I don't understand you'.
"So quickly I went around and found the doctor, I told him he's asked about Christopher and he said 'you have to tell him' and I just said 'What am I going to tell him?' I didn't know how to say it.
"So the doctor told him, he was so lovely with him."
As well as burns to almost 40 per cent of his body, John survived a partial collapsed lung, sepsis, pneumonia, a superbug and now suffers from an atrial fibrillation, which will require medication for the rest of his life.
Originally published as Eels superfan recounts volcano horror that claimed son's life