‘Cause for celebration’: White Island guide turns 20 a year after almost dying in the eruption

Jake Milbank turns 20 tomorrow. He will celebrate surrounded by loved ones – a year on from nearly dying in the Whakaari / White Island tragedy on his last birthday.

The young White Island Tours guide was critically injured in the disaster which claimed 22 lives. Severe burns covered 80 per cent of his body.

He spent weeks fighting for his life in intensive care units, and has had lengthy operations for his burns.

“It’s his birthday, and the anniversary, so there will be a lot going on,” Jake’s father, Steve Milbank, told the Herald.

“His last birthday, I was supposed to be taking him and a bunch of his mates on the boat for a day out fishing. So we will probably be doing that … a year late.

“It will definitely be cause for celebration.”

What was meant to be a special celebratory day for the Milbank family turned into every parents’ nightmare when White Island erupted with devastating effect.

A year on, Steve Milbank refers to the fateful day as “pretty horrific”.

Jake Milbank was never meant to be at work taking tourists around the volcanic island on December 9 last year.

He had been given the day off so he could celebrate turning 19. He planned to head out and catch some fish with his dad and some mates.

But the trip was cancelled when he was called into work because his employer was short of a crew member.

What was meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the island for tour groups turned into disaster when White Island erupted at 2.11pm.

Steve Milbank said: “When I heard the island had erupted I knew that he was out there so I shot into town and was going to jump in the boat and hoon straight out there. When I got out there [to where his boat was] I heard from my mates, the Coastguard, that all the survivors had got on the [White Island Tours] boat and were on their way back.

“So we waited at the ramp for them to get back.

“One of my mates helped him off the boat and said, ‘He is in that ambulance, follow it’.”

Milbank followed the ambulance to Whakatāne Hospital, where off-duty staff had arrived for what was to become a battle to save lives.

Steve Milbank revealed that for a time he thought his son had died after reaching the hospital.

“We were in the waiting room and I saw a couple of guys wheeling a bed with someone on it with a sheet over them. And I saw a little tuft of hair sticking out and I thought, ‘S*** that looks like him’.

“After a while I saw someone and said, ‘Look, my son just went out on a bed with a sheet over him. What is going on?’. He went out and checked the morgue and said, ‘No, he is not in the morgue’.

“It was a pretty horrific day. It was a shocker of a day.”

Jake Milbank was airlifted to Waikato Hospital and the next day transferred to Middlemore Hospital. He was in critical condition in a coma.

For the next month there were grave fears that he would not survive.

“It was just over two weeks until he came out of his coma and then he was hooked up to machines for at least another three weeks after that,” Steve Milbank said.

“There were people around him who had half the burns to what he had who were dying from infections. They told us it was only a matter of time before he got an infection; it wasn’t if he was going to get one, it was pretty much when.”

But Jake Milbank remained infection-free during his ordeal.

Earlier it had been explained to the Milbank family by specialists at the National Burn Centre of New Zealand, based at Middlemore Hospital, about the reality that Jake faced.

“They said to us you take the burns victim’s age, add that to the percentage burns, and if it is under 100 you have got a shot. If it is over 100, it is unlikely [he will survive],” Steve Milbank recalled.

“Jake had 80 per cent burns and he was 19 years of age, which is 99. It was that close.

“When we first went in there that is what they have to do, they have to prepare you for the worst. It was a pretty good chance he wasn’t going to make it … it was pretty bloody amazing at the end of the day [he did survive].”

As a father, Milbank was powerless to do anything but offer bedside support for his gravely ill son.

“All you could do was be there with him,” he said. “He was pretty happy for that, to have us around him.”

He added he was immensely proud of the fighting qualities his son had displayed.

“I guess when you are fighting for your life you have to do what you have to do,” he said. “It was just survival mode for him.”

A Givealittle page created to support Jake’s recovery struck a chord. Kind-hearted Kiwis donated more than $160,000 to the online fundraiser.

Steve Milbank said a portion of the funds had been spent on a physio who treats Jake six days a week, as well as setting up a mini-gym so he can work on his fitness and improve his movement.

He said his son “still has a hell of a long way to go”.

Ever-present reminders included “big and gnarly” scars, especially where grafts joined the original skin.

Due to the weakness of some of Jake’s skin, bumps can lead to it splitting.

It was hoped more surgeries might improve that.

“He still can’t use his hands, his fingers are all clawed. He tries hard and can’t grip anything. It is pretty bad. He can’t work anything with his hands which is pretty tough for a young kid.”

But in the last few months, Jake had seen mates every day, and gone whitebaiting andfishing off the beach.

“He is starting to be able to do a couple of things and that is keeping him mentally a lot happier,” Milbank said.

“He knows he is lucky to be around, that is for sure.”

Milbank said he remained indebted to all the people who had cared for his son.

That included those who provided first aid to him as he was rushed back from White Island, ambulance crews, and medical teams at Whakatāne, Waikato and Middlemore Hospitals.

“As soon as the staff at Whakatāne Hospital heard what had happened they all turned up, even if they were off work. Everyone just poured into the place … they saved quite a few lives; a few people wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for their efforts.”

He was also full of admiration and respect for the teams from intensive care units at Waikato and Middlemore hospitals who kept “him alive”.

“They gave him the ultimate care,” Steve said.

The Milbank family now want to travel to Auckland to reunite with the ICU doctors and nurses, and the specialist team from the National Burn Centre of New Zealand.

When asked what he would like to say to all the people who contributed to his beloved son’s survival, Steve said: “Just a huge thank you. You can’t express just how big a thing it is to still have your son after something like that.”

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