Excerpt: Surviving Galeras

I left Armero keenly aware that if we don't improve our ability to forecast eruptions and educate local officials, another eruption will kill tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people someday. Burgeoning populations, particularly in Third World countries, have pushed many people even closer to active volcanoes. Today, roughly 500 million people live within reach of an eruption. The famed eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 killed several thousand people at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Dr. Peter Baxter, a good friend and the world's leading expert on how volcanoes kill, says that if a similar eruption occurred without warning today, and if the evacuation of Naples and its suburbs moved slowly, more than 100,000 people might perish in a few minutes.

Six years after the eruption at Galeras I stood again at the crater's rim, scarcely recognizing the blasted, gray pit spread out before me. The ledge on which Igor Menyailov and Nestor García knelt and sampled gases had disappeared. The western rim, where Geoff Brown, Fernando Cuenca, and Carlos Trujillo stood, had been partially blown away by the eruption. Portions of the crater's southwestern lip had collapsed. Even the outer flank of the crater, where I had run for my life, had changed, its lower reaches littered with boulders — some as big as washing machines — thrown from the volcano. The truth is that few places on earth are as mutable as a volcano's peak, where high-pressure gases force open new fumaroles and eruptions scour the crater's bottom and sides.

Gazing into the crater, I was struck by how tiny, in a geological sense, the eruption had been. As the steam from fumaroles drifted past me and wafted down Galeras's western flank, I reminded myself that the deadly eruption was a mere hiccup, a blast so small that geologists decades hence will find no sign of it. Yet the power of the eruption, to those of us who lived through it, was staggering. It wiped five of my colleagues from the face of the earth. It killed nine men, injured six others, and continues to ripple through the lives of dozens of people. It nearly killed me.

The volcano runs like a fault line through my days, dividing my existence into life before Galeras and life after.

Copyright © 2001 Stanley Willaims and Fen Montaigne

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