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Nine friends from Coffs Harbour boarded a cruise to New Zealand. Three will never come home.

Last week, more than 4000 guests excitedly boarded the Royal Caribbean’s Ovation of the Seas in Sydney Harbour.

Coffs Harbour locals Jason Griffiths, 33, Karla Mathews, 32, and her boyfriend Richard Elzer, 32, and six other friends were among those excited for a tour of New Zealand.

The group had been looking forward to a wonderful holiday together – fitting it in just before Christmas.

Footage of the disaster was captured by horrified onlookers. Post continues after video.

Video by Blue Wave 2020

The cruise they’d picked promised “epic adventures” from “jaw-dropping fjords to dramatic volcanoes to peaceful lakes”.

After four nights on board they reached Tauranga, a coastal city about 90km from White Island. The volcano tour was one of the activities on offer.

One passenger told the Herald Sun the ship provided them information about the island but did not mention the alert level, which had been upgraded to a level two a few weeks before. That’s the level just before it actually exploding.

On Monday, Jason, Karla and Richard headed off for a day exploring the bubbling mud and smoking vents of the active volcano – leaving the rest of their group behind.

Karla and Richard remain on White Island where there has been no sign of life since the explosion. Image: Facebook.
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Of the 47 people on White ­Island when its volcano erupted at 2.11pm on Monday, 24 were reportedly passengers from the Ovation, according to the ABC.

Life on board - which was previously full of joy and laughter - turned first to shock and confusion and then despair.

“A pretty sombre mood on Ovation of the Seas tonight,” tweeted Brisbane-based ABC journalist Donna Field, one of the passengers. “Everyone started today heading off to great adventures — sadly crew and guests who went to White Island haven’t made it back.”

Still on deck, the trio's friends were left spinning, desperate for news of survivors.

Some time later, they discovered that two of the three, Richard and Karla, were still on the island. They were told there are no signs of life.

In the early hours of the morning, they found Jason in one of the hospitals. Those that survived the initial blast were critically injured, many suffering burns to 90 and 95 percent of their bodies, reported Stuff.co.nz.

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From the moment they found him until the moment he died, Jason's friends were by his side. As were his family who rushed to his side.

Jason Griffiths
Jason died surrounded by friends and family. Image: Facebook.

"We are incredibly saddened to have lost three of our closest friends. We are devastated," Alex, Daniel, Ellie, Leanne, Paul and Samantha wrote in a statement.

"Always made me smile," Paul posted in tribute on Facebook alongside a photo of Karla.

Peter Elzer, Richard's dad also released a statement.

He thanked his son's friends for their mammoth efforts searching tirelessly for answers and updates, feeding them back to the three families awaiting news in Australia.

He thanks Woolworths, where his son was employed. They've been quick to offer the family support.

He expressed frustration at the Australian authorities for their lack of information. "I would like to call for a change to the way the Department of Foreign Affairs corresponds with immediate family members in crises like these," he wrote.

He's had to rely on the media for updates on his missing son, instead of the government.

Authorities are trying to work out how to retrieve the bodies of Karla and Richard and those still left on the island, but as the Financial Review reports, conditions are hampering attempts. Crews are facing serious physical and chemical hazards, like poisonous gas which is making breathing impossible and obscuring their vision.

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Eight people have been confirmed dead; among them two Sydney school boys, a mother and daughter, and a man and his stepdaughter. Nine remain on the island, presumed dead. 20 people are in intensive care with severe burns.

white island victims australia
Sydney school boys Berend Hollander, 16, and Matthew Hollander, 13, are among the victims. Image: Facebook.

Yesterday the ship set sail for the rest of its trip, carrying thousands of people who after witnessing the tragedy unfold are now expected to go back to cocktails and sightseeing.

Local traditional Maori owners of the land performed a prayer for the remaining crew and tourists wishing them safe passage on the rest of the journey - the ship is due back in Sydney on Monday.

But the friends from Coffs Harbour won't be onboard, neither will Adelaide victims Gavin Dallow and his daughter Zoe, or Julie Richards and her daughter Jessica.

In fact, most of the victims are believed to have come from the cruise ship - but all of their beds are now empty.

They were all just trying to get in a quick holiday before Christmas.

Feature image: Facebook.

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