In the Shadow of Galeras

For three hours, a team of scientists collected samples from deep inside the crater of a seemingly peaceful volcano. Suddenly, an apocalyptic eruption shot white-hot rocks into the darkening sky. Nine people were killed high on the Colombian mountain that day, and volcanologist Stanley Williams barely escaped with his life. In an exclusive preview from the controversial new book Surviving Galeras, Williams recalls the horror.

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OUR GROUP CONSISTED OF FOUR teams. Igor and Nestor García would sample gases in and around the crater. Geoff, accompanied by Colombians Fernando Cuenca and Carlos Trujillo, would check the gravity levels around the cone and the crater rim. Americans Mike Conway and Andy Macfarlane and Ecuadoran geochemist Luis LeMarie were going to insert temperature probes, known as thermocouples, into the fumaroles. Andy Adams from New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratoryand Guatemalan Alfredo Roldán, along with Colombian Fabio García, would reconnoiter the volcano for later research on its magmatic fluids. I was overseeing the trip.

Our group spent about 90 minutes at the main fumarole, called Deformes, about 30 feet down the cone, as Igor meticulously collected gases in double-chambered bottles. Then we moved up to the lip of the crater and watched as Igor and Nestor descended the sheer sides of the volcano's mouth. Geoff's team circled the rim.

By 1 p.m. I was itching to get off the volcano. We'd been on Galeras for more than three hours. I like to wrap up work on Andean volcanoes by early afternoon, before heavy clouds roll in. The Colombian TV crew had left earlier, as had Fabio García and Carlos Estrada, and now Adams and Roldán started down the cone. At the top of my lungs I yelled to Igor that it was time to clear out.

"How are the samples?" I hollered.

"Good," he yelled back. "Not govno."

Govno is Russian for "shit." Igor had taught me the word, and he was smiling as he saw me catch the meaning. Squatting next to the fumarole, a cigarette dangling from his lips, Igor talked with Nestor and packed up his bottles. They shouted that they would rest a minute while Igor smoked, and then they would go.

José Arlés was standing next to me on the crater rim, checking in by radio with the observatory in Pasto. He was helping me organize the field trip, and I liked having him by my side. A 35-year-old with black hair that fell over his forehead, José Arlés had been on Galeras countless times, and I was reassured by his ritual of communicating with the observatory. Time and again, the staff there told him that the eight seismic stations around Galeras showed no hint of unusual activity.

As José Arlés and I rounded up the others, three tourists, who had hiked up to see what we were doing, stood a few feet away. Suddenly, a rock tumbled off the inside wall of the crater. Then a second rock clattered down the crater mouth, and then a third, and soon a cascade of stones and boulders rained onto the floor of the volcano. It was either an earthquake or an eruption.

"Hurry up! Get out!" I shouted in English and Spanish. I vaguely remember seeing Geoff Brown on the opposite rim and gesturing at him to flee. I remember looking down and seeing Igor and Nestor scrambling to get out of the crater. (My surviving colleagues contend I could not have seen such a thing, since, they say, I had already started down the cone.) After that I remember turning. I remember running madly downhill, the world reduced to jouncing boulders and scree. I had no idea where my colleagues were, saw nothing but the charcoal universe of the cone.

Then there was a hellish, ear-shattering boom! as the earth blew apart and Galeras disgorged its contents, ejecting tons of rock and ash. Instantly, a fusillade of red- and white-hot stones—some the size of tennis balls, some the size of large TV sets—sizzled through the air. Protecting my head with my backpack, I raced down the rugged gray flank of the cone.

I did not get far.


 

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