Volcano wars

Nine scientists met grisly deaths in a 1993 eruption in Colombia, but the battle over who was to blame rages on.


Laura Miller
April 11, 2001 11:46PM (UTC)

When the volcano Galeras in southwestern Colombia erupted in January 1993 the blast didn't even amount to a burp on the grand scale of geological events. What made the explosion news, and what has inspired two new books about it this spring, was the presence of a team of scientists inside the volcano's crater at the time of the eruption. Nine men died -- four literally blown to bits, so that their bodies could never be recovered -- and 10 more were injured, including the group's leader, Arizona State University geology professor Stanley Williams. Williams suffered two broken legs, a nearly severed foot, multiple burns from being pelted with red-hot rocks and ash and a hole in his head -- literally. A stony projectile caved in his skull just over his left ear and exposed his brain to the air, the tissue embedded with fragments of bone and rock.

Williams, lying in the no man's land between the cone of the volcano and the outer rim of the caldera (a basin surrounding the cone) and fighting off shock, was rescued in large part because of the heroic efforts of two female colleagues, a Colombian who had studied with him in the States and an American. Tricky neurosurgery, reconstruction of his shattered leg, diminished mental functioning and grief at the loss of his colleagues followed Williams' hellish travails in the caldera. The eruption, as he and his co-writer, journalist Fen Montaigne, describe it in "Surviving Galeras," was a catastrophe that couldn't have been predicted or anticipated, just like the various other (and even more devastating) volcanic disasters he recounts in filling out the book's 270 pages.

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That's Williams' story, and he's sticking to it, but science reporter and geologist Virginia Bruce isn't buying. Her emphatically subtitled "No Apparent Danger: The True Story of Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado Del Ruiz," argues that Williams is a grandstanding maverick who failed to enforce proper safety precautions during the trip to the crater and misrepresented himself as the sole survivor of the disaster in the media frenzy that followed the tragedy. Most damning, she contends, before leading his colleagues into the crater Williams had ignored evidence that suggested another eruption was on its way.

If all of this triggers a sensation of déjà vu, then you may have also followed the controversy attendant to Jon Krakauer's enormously successful "Into Thin Air," an account of the 1996 Everest disaster. Not long after Krakauer's book hit the bestseller lists, "The Climb," another firsthand description of the infamous climbing expedition that ended in the deaths of eight people, was published, this one by Anatoli Boukreev. Boukreev died shortly after his book came out, but his criticism of Krakauer's version of events was staunchly defended in the press by his coauthor, G. Weston DeWalt.

In the case of the Galeras tragedy, however, Bruce's debunking has arrived at the very same time as Williams' ostensibly authoritative account. However much this may irk the authors, in truth, the conflict between the two books makes each one more interesting than it would have been alone. That's because the Galeras disaster, however rivetingly it's described (the first-person version in Williams' book is a real nail-biter), doesn't by itself make for a book-length narrative; it simply happened too fast. The eruption lasted less than a half-hour, and the relatively smooth rescue operation only a couple of hours more. Unlike the Everest expedition, Galeras isn't the story of an isolated group of mismatched people battling the elements and their own weaknesses over a period of several days -- a setup, for all the world like an unorchestrated season of "Survivor," that makes Krakauer's book an irresistible blend of adventure yarn and soap opera.

Both Williams and Bruce, then, must pad their books with extra-Galeras volcanic lore. Williams gives us Pliny the Younger's report of how Pliny the Elder died in the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79 and describes the horrible demise of a husband-and-wife team of volcano documentarians in the pyroclastic flow that poured out of Japan's Mount Unzen in 1991. Pyroclastic flows, the reader will learn from both books, are the most deadly volcanic emission and a hazard of which the public is largely unaware. ("Whenever they think of a volcano, it's lava, lava, lava," Williams carps.) Bruce describes this phenomenon as "a superhot avalanche of rock, ash, and steam," and once you've read about what a pyroclastic flow can do to you, a pokey ol' lava flow does start to seem like a day in the park. Pyroclastic flows can travel as fast as 300 mph, and if one hits you, it can instantly scorch both your skin and your respiratory tract and lungs, leaving burns that will probably kill you but will take their time doing it. Bruce relates a speedier version of pyroclastic mortality in which the inhalation of volcanic ash causes the trachea to fill with fluid, and "by the time the person takes a third breath, thick, hot cement fills the lungs and windpipe, causing the victim to suffocate." Or the flow might just cook you like a Sunday pot roast.

But wait -- there's more. Bruce also includes the story of the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz, a volcano to the north of Galeras. Taller than Galeras, Nevado del Ruiz is capped with ice, large portions of which melted and caused monstrous mudslides that wiped the city of Armero off the face of the earth and killed 23,000 people. At times cresting as high as 100 feet, the wall of mud -- "dark, thick and unimaginably loud" -- moved so quickly that, in the village of Chinchiná, it killed 1,000 people in less than 60 seconds. Bruce tells the story of the destruction of Armero through the eyes of geology student Juan José Restrepo, who struggled for days to survive in a nightmarish landscape worthy of Dante's Inferno, in which the mud first sucked its victims under and then later imprisoned them as it dried and hardened.

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Galeras, however, had no ice cap to melt, and it's unclear whether the 1993 eruption involved even the tiniest pyroclastic flow. People outside the rim of the caldera were unhurt by the eruption. The hair-raising tales of volcanic catastrophes past that the authors use to fill out their books threaten to overshadow the story that serves as the premise for both volumes. If it weren't for the controversy over whether Williams should have led a group into the crater at all, how he should have instructed them to behave once they were in it and how he should have conducted himself in the aftermath of the eruption, these two books would leave their readers with a lot less to chew on. Instead, they offer an intriguing choice between two very different interpretations not only of what happened that afternoon but also of the man who presided over it.

The story of Galeras, as Williams tells it, is an example of the necessary risk in a daring profession. "Volcanologists are a different breed," he writes. "Sharing hardships and memorable experiences, we develop a soldierly camaraderie. Dick Stoiber [his mentor] and I have slept on smoldering peaks. We've been detained by gunmen en route to volcanoes. We've been in car accidents coming down from volcanoes and survived a few close calls during eruptions. Our profession is not for those who prize a secure, sedentary life." While he asserts that "today's researchers are pioneers in an endeavor that could eventually save tens of thousands of lives," you get the distinct impression that for him the prospect of saving lives holds less allure than the thrill of risking his own -- and the dashing self-image that comes with considering himself part of an elect, romantic breed apart.

Williams is at pains to portray his fellow volcanologists -- and particularly the scientist victims of the Galeras eruption -- as reconciled to the perils inherent in their work, even willing to die if it means dying doing the thing they love most: studying volcanoes. But the acceptance of risk isn't the same as a reckless embrace of it, and Bruce portrays Williams as a cowboy who went off half-cocked because that suited his idea of himself as a geological Indiana Jones. One member of the Galeras group, a man who attributes his survival to the hard hat and flame-resistant coveralls he wore in the caldera, still fumes at the memory of Williams sniggering at him for taking those precautions.

What Bruce and Williams' other critics most fault him for, though, is his alleged disregard of seismological evidence that the volcano was nursing another eruption. Williams claims that the predictive technique that looks for "long period" tremors as indications of an impending blast was so new at the time of the Galeras disaster that he had not yet heard of it. He admits to "not getting along" with the originator of the technique, Bernard Chouet of the U.S. Geological Survey, and claims that Chouet never sent him a copy of a report outlining how he'd accurately forecasted an eruption at Galeras six months earlier. Bruce asserts that exactly the same seismic indicators were present just before the fatal 1993 explosion.

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She also insists that Williams had been warned of the risk. Not only does she make a convincing case that Williams knew about Chouet's technique for forecasting eruptions, but she has even dug up a grant proposal he had written two years earlier requesting funds to study the value of seismic data in predicting eruptions. She quotes two seismologists who met with Williams just before the trip to the volcano and "voiced their apprehension about the [long-period tremors] showing up in the seismic data." Williams claims that this meeting never happened.

Try as he might to portray himself as a fundamentally sober-minded, if fetchingly bold, scientist, Williams keeps tipping the reader off to his macho affectations. At one point, for example, he describes joking with a novice researcher collecting sulfide volcanic gas samples for the first time, telling the man that "sucking gas" is a rite of passage for volcanologists. By the time Williams refers to himself and his colleagues as "those who walk into the crater," it's obvious that his "breed" is the kind to whom the most irritating car commercials are directed: extreme-sports buffs, swaggering weekend warriors and the grown-up version of those tiresome young men who can be found in any youth hostel, lecturing everybody about the properly "rough" way to travel.

Williams makes it clear he's contrite about the outrageous way he carried on after the eruption, copping to having a "not inconsiderable ego" that was flattered by the hullabaloo of media attention. But he also blames some of it on his brain injury and the mood-altering medication he had to take to suppress the resulting seizures. He needs a good excuse. Bruce quotes a shocking memo Williams sent to a colleague who dared to suggest that the volcanologist's claim to be the sole survivor of the eruption was insensitive to the five other men who were in the caldera at the time. In the memo, Williams calls two of the other survivors "pathetic liars" whose complaints are motivated by "guilt (for not having done anything [to save] me) and jealousy for the recognition which I received." Williams claims his anti-seizure medication makes him "irritable," but Bruce establishes that he had a history of throwing tantrums when professionally crossed even before the accident.

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Journalism, just like volcanology, has its thrills, and in the rousing final chapters of "No Apparent Danger," Bruce delivers quite a few, presenting transcripts of TV interviews, tiny stories unearthed from obscure geology journals and the aforementioned grant proposal -- all testifying to Williams' many "inconsistencies," and thoroughly decimating his claims to having been "misquoted" about being the sole survivor of the eruption. It's a fascinating counterpart to Williams' own, so expertly crafted (no doubt by Montaigne, a Pulitzer finalist) account. "How easy it is to snipe after the fact," Williams writes of the colleagues who questioned his judgment in disregarding the seismographic evidence of an impending eruption. But Bruce's book isn't mere "sniping" and there's nothing "easy" about it. (Publishers Weekly reports that Williams is now questioning Bruce's scientific credentials.) As dangerous as a volcano can be, the dueling versions of what happened on Galeras in 1993 indicate that even something as feeble and treacherous as human vanity can be deadly as well.


Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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