Jesse Langford Recalls Horror of Volcanic Eruption that Killed His Family: 'Everything Started Going Black'

The new Netflix documentary "The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari" chronicles the former student's harrowing story of survival that began Dec. 9, 2019, while sightseeing in New Zealand

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari. Jesse Langford in The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari.
Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

The nightmare that upended Jesse Langford's life on Dec. 9, 2019, began with an explosion that he says sounded a lot like "fireworks."

A 19-year-old college student at the time, Jesse was on a 16-day cruise with his family, who lived in Sydney, Australia, when they decided to take a sightseeing day trip to Whakaari Island (also known as White Island), an 800-acre cone volcano located 30 miles off the coast of New Zealand's North Island.

After taking photos of the massive crater as it belched up steam and plumes of sulfuric gas, Langford, his father Anthony, 51, mom Kristine, 46, sister Winona, 17, and the rest of the group of 21 tourists were heading back to their boat on a nearby beach when the volcano rumbled to life.

"We all turned around to look at it," Langford — whose heartbreaking ordeal is chronicled in the new Netflix documentary The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari, streaming Friday — tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview. "As scary and as daunting as it was, it was quite a beautiful sight ... at least until things got really dangerous."

Within seconds, Langford remembers feeling the ground shudder, a blast of intense heat hit his face and a surge of adrenaline pulse through his body.

"That's when it suddenly became real and frightening," says Langford. "Boulders the size of people were flying through the air all around us and everything started going black."

When the tour guide yelled, "run," the family began sprinting over the rocky terrain, heading in what they believed was the direction of the beach through black smoke and scalding-hot steam. Realizing he couldn't outrun the deadly blast, Langford spotted a large mound and decided to take shelter behind it.

"But before I could reach it, I got hit in the back by a rock with such force that it knocked me to the ground," says Langford, whose protective hardhat and sunglasses were blown off by the ferocious winds. "I ended up curling up into the fetal position, trying to protect my face and trying to hold my breath to keep from breathing in the steam."

The Volano: Rescue from Whakaari.
Courtesy of Netflix

After what felt like an eternity, the smoke dissipated slightly and Langford stumbled back to where his shell-shocked parents and several others in their group were sitting on the ground. His mother wasn't moving, and his father told him he could barely breathe.

All around him people — who moments earlier were laughing and snapping photographs of the island that resembled an alien planet — were screaming in agony.

"And as I sat there, slowly the screams turned into whimpers and soft crying," he recalls as one by one nearly everyone near him died. "Eventually it got to the point where there was no sound at all."

Covered with countless cuts and gashes, Langford remembers "just sitting there and rocking back and forth" before realizing that if he didn't force himself to start moving, he and others who might still be alive would soon be dead from their injuries.

The Volano: Rescue from Whakaari.
Courtesy of Netflix

"I could feel my burnt skin starting to tighten up," he says. "So I told myself, 'If this is the last thing I'm gonna do, I can't sit here. I've got to suck it up and try my best to walk and find help.' "

As Langford made his way through the haze and down toward the beach, he was struck by how the landscape had been blanketed by inches of dark, grayish soot. "I probably walked right past my sister," he says, "but I couldn't see her because she was totally covered in ash."

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Along the way he ran into one of the tour guides, who wasn't as close to the eruption as he had been, and begged him to return with him to the spot where he'd left the others. But the man, sensing the seriousness of Langford's injuries, insisted on leading him to an awaiting boat that eventually took him back to the mainland.

"I've never been in so much pain," recalls Langford, who suffered burns over 70 percent of his body that required 18 surgeries and kept him in the hospital — where he later watched a live stream of the funerals for his parents and sister — for three months.

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari. The Langford family.
Courtesy of Netflix

He still marvels over the heroics of the volunteer helicopter crews who risked their lives rescuing 12 people from the island, including his father.

"He actually made it to the hospital before succumbing to his injuries," he says of his dad.

Of the 21 people in his group, only three survived. His sister's body was never found and is believed to have been swept out to sea after a massive storm hit the island not long after the eruption.

The Volano: Rescue from Whakaari.
Courtesy of Netflix

Now 22 and recently graduated from nursing college, Langford refuses to be defined by the tragedy, which claimed the lives of 22 people and left 25 others seriously injured.

He's also become a mentor for the SHARE Burns Peer Support Program, helping others recovering from severe burns at the same hospital where he was treated after the eruption on Whakaari Island.

"I've spent the past three years focused on rebuilding myself to be stronger, completing my degree and moving on in life," says Langford, who will begin working as a nurse in an intensive care unit in the coming months. "Sitting around and feeling sorry for myself isn't going to get me anywhere or benefit anyone."

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari — from director Rory Kennedy and executive producers Leonardo DiCaprio, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer — premieres on Netflix Dec. 16.

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