When the volcanic White Island of New Zealand erupted in December, it was a "shock but not a surprise," writes Joshua Hammer at GQ. Volcanologists had been taking note of increased activity for a while, and the four-stage threat level had been raised from 1 to 2. But that did little to dissuade tourists who continued to flock to the picturesque island—the story's headline refers to it as "Instagram Island" because of its popularity with selfie-takers and with Hollywood. (Mulan is one of the movies filmed there.) When the volcano erupted, nearly 50 people were on the island exploring its nooks and crannies, though they weren't oblivious to the danger: Everyone getting off the chartered tourist boats received a gas mask and a hard hat, just in case.
Those nearest the eruption "didn't stand a chance," writes Hammer. "Some might have been killed instantly by the pressure wave of the eruption. Others would have asphyxiated after the blast knocked the air out of their lungs, causing them to reflexively draw in superheated gases that incinerated their respiratory tracts." As one volcano expert says, "Hopefully it was sudden." Hammer's story details the dramatic rescue efforts that ensued, with one charter boat—which had been anchored at a safe distance—heading back to the island to look for survivors. Local helicopter pilots flew in at great risk to themselves to do the same. The blast killed 21, and about two dozen were injured, many with horrific burns. Two tourists escaped injury altogether by jumping into the sea. Read the full story. (One survivor woke from a coma to learn her husband and daughter were among those killed.)