A Helicopter Ride Into the Mouth of a Volcano

Neal Karlinsky twitters he is in a restricted zone - driving into ash right now.

We took a helicopter ride today to the top of the crater to watch the volcano called Eyjafjallajokull erupt with all its fury from just 600 yards away.

It was stunningly beautiful and surprisingly safe as long as the pilot kept us on the north side of the crater -- upwind from the dangerous and now infamous ash.

All day people have asked me about the chopper ride. "Wow, that must have been cool," was a popular comment.

But honestly, staring down the throat of an eruption from the cockpit of a helicopter wasn't what made today memorable. It was our trip to the fallout zone that I'll never forget.

The short time we spent deep inside the ash-drenched south side of the mountain is unlike anything I've experienced.

Within just a few short miles, we crossed over from a brilliant day of sunshine into the most bleak, inhospitable place I've ever encountered.

The ash fully blocks out the sun. It was pitch black and visibility was zero before we could get very far.

Our team wore facemasks to filter out the ash, goggles and protective clothing. Even so, it was horrible.

The ash was thick like a fresh coating of powdery snow -- yet abrasive. The particles are sharp under eyelids and in the back of my throat as I write this.

We saw a pond of ash-coated swans and a pasture of confused horses, trapped in a fog of poisonous powder.

We met people too -- sturdy, stoic Icelandic families who refuse to leave. Many have taped up windows and door cracks to keep the ash out. They're scared.

These people aren't in danger of missing a plane or getting stranded far from home like so many others: They're just plain scared.

Farms have been ruined by this ash, and not just for the immediate future. There's real fear here that some farms may not be able to grow any crops for at least another year because of the ash.

And then there's the looming threat of yet another volcano, Katla, which could turn this disaster into a catastrophe.

Katla is bigger and more powerful and if history repeats, it may blow its top soon -- just as it has every time Eyjafjallajokull has erupted over the centuries.

If that happens, the dark cloud over this tiny island nation won't dissipate any time soon and, depending on which way the wind blows, our trip to the ash zone today may be just a small, bitter taste of what's to come.

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