Surviving 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 cont

In the Shadow of Galeras

   

 
 

MY COLLEAGUES came and went in the clouds. Banks of cumulus drifted across the peaks of the Andes, enveloping us in a cool fog that made it impossible to see anything but the gray rubble on which we stood. As morning gave way to afternoon, the clouds occasionally dispersed, offering a heartening glimpse of blue sky and revealing the barren, imposing landscape around us.

We were perched at 14,000 feet, on top of the Colombian volcano Galeras. It was January 14, 1993. At the center of the tableau was the volcano's cone and its steaming crater. Surrounding the cone on three sides were high walls of volcanic rock forming an amphitheater almost a mile and a half wide, a subtle palette of dun, gray, and beige. Occasionally I glimpsed in the west a forested, razorback ridge sloping toward the equatorial lowlands below—the flank of an ancient volcano, one of many vestiges of earlier Galerases, in various stages of decay.

Around 1 p.m., four other geologists and I, part of our larger party of 13 scientists, stood on the crater's lip and gazed inside. Some 900 feet wide and 200 feet deep, the mouth of Galeras was a misshapen hole strewn with jagged boulders. Sulfuric gases shot from fumaroles, or vents, with a hiss, assaulting the nostrils with acrid odors and further obscuring the landscape in a swirl of vapors. The gas clouds often veiled Igor Menyailov, a Russian volcanologist sitting amid a jumble of rocks and thrusting a glass tube

into a fumarole. The 55-year-old, who'd learned English by listening to black-market Elvis recordings, swiveled his head away from the vents as he talked with Colombian scientist Nestor García. Circling the rim of the crater, appearing and reappearing in the fog like a phantom, was English volcanologist Geoff Brown, accompanied by Colombian scientists Fernando Cuenca and Carlos Trujillo. Brown was taking the volcano's pulse with a highly sensitive device called a gravimeter. Like Igor, he was trying to determine if magma was on the move. We all used different methods, but our goal was the same—to forecast eruptions, to predict when Galeras might blow. We all wanted to save lives. Nine people would lose theirs that day.

This is what I remember. I know now what an elusive thing memory can be.


 
 
 
 

I HAD ARRIVED IN PASTO, Colombia, the week before to join an international team of more than 100 fellow scientists studying the Galeras volcano. Old friends and colleagues streamed in for our convention, a conference I would run with Pasto native Marta Calvache, the director of the Colombian government's geological observatory here and my close friend and prized graduate student. We had worked together in Pasto, and on Galeras, for years.

The city of Pasto (pop. 300,000) sits at 8,400 feet in a wide green bowl. Its central square is only five miles from the crater, and on a clear day residents can see steam rising from the squat, barren volcano, its apron stained green, brown, and gold by a patchwork of crops. The mountain's lower realms are thick with white-flowering coffee bushes, yellow-flowering guava trees, red and purple bougainvillaea. Galeras seems to be a generally benign presence; Pastusos are quick to point out that, despite being the most active Colombian volcano in recent centuries, Galeras had never killed anyone in recorded history.

But Galeras had grown more threatening. In 1988, after slumbering for 40 years, the volcano awoke with a series of minor earthquakes. In March 1989 it coughed up a cloud of ash that fell on Pasto. Two months later, an eruption sent a plume two miles high, sprinkling dust on the surrounding towns. Then, in August 1991, this activity rose sharply. By November a hardened lava dome was being squeezed up out of the volcano, eventually growing to a height of 150 feet. On July 16, 1992, the dome was blown to pieces, catapulting 12-foot boulders throughout the amphitheater and sending a column of ash 3.5 miles into the air.

By the time we arrived in Pasto six months later, Galeras seemed like the perfect specimen—active, but quieter than it had been in four years. Only a faint twitch of seismicity occasionally etched a tornillo, a screw-shaped signal, onto the black seismograph drums in the geological observatory. Sadly, my colleagues and I failed to appreciate the significance of these subtle signals.


 
   
 
 
 

ON THE MORNING OF JANUARY 14, I led a convoy of a half-dozen jeeps west out of Pasto. Seventy-five scientists would be working around Galeras that day, but ours was the only group that would study the crater itself. The temperature was in the forties, and thick clouds drifted slowly across the mountaintops. About 3,000 feet from the summit we entered a national park, the mountainside thick with frailejon, a succulent with silvery-green leaves and vivid yellow flowers. Before entering the clouds, I caught a final glimpse of Pasto a few thousand feet below. Above the red tile roofs, wisps of smoke drifted from the chimneys.

The convoy parked at a small, stucco police station perched on the rim surrounding the volcano's amphitheater. I'd stood here many times: Standing at the police post, you gaze down at the active volcano, its crater lip 300 feet below. In the center of the amphitheater rises the present cone of Galeras, 1,500 feet in diameter, and in its center, 450 feet above the amphitheater floor, is the active crater. To get from the police post to the crater you descend the declivitous wall of the old volcano, with its layers of hardened lava at the top and scree at the bottom. Then you cross 150 feet of amphitheater floor before reaching the cone, whose scree slope rises at a 45-degree angle. An old wooden soccer goal sits in pieces at the base of the cone, placed there by soldiers who once played on what was undoubtedly the world's most dangerous soccer field.

The 16 of us—13 scientists, a two-man Colombian television crew, and our driver from the observatory, Carlos Estrada—moved to the lip of the scarp. Geoff Brown checked his gravimeter. Igor Menyailov peeked into his box of sampling tubes. José Arlés Zapata made the sign of the cross. Around 10 a.m. we began to descend the amphitheater wall, holding on to a thick, yellow nylon rope for the initial 100-foot drop. The clouds were still dense, and after a few dozen yards the rope disappeared into a gray void.


 
   

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.


 
   

I HAVE HEARD THAT TIME slows down in a disaster, that for some it even stands still. For me, nothing was further from the truth. Everything moved at warp speed. The crater was roaring, the volcano throbbing, the air crackling with shrapnel. My mind seemed to blow a fuse. After a few seconds, however, something instinctual took charge. I flew down the slope, my only impulse to put as much distance between me and the crater as possible.

Then the rock hit me. It was as if someone had taken a swing at my head with a baseball bat, rudely interrupting my progress. The projectile, probably no bigger than an orange, struck with such force that I was knocked a few feet sideways and crumpled. The blow landed just above my left ear; it caved in my skull, I later learned, driving several bone fragments into my brain. Stunned, I lay on the slope, my head ringing, the air still bellowing. Bomblets from the volcano, many more than a yard in diameter, shattered when they hit the earth, flinging out red-hot, hissing fragments.

I had made it no more than 20 yards from the crater's lip. Pulling myself to my feet, I looked to the side and noticed, just a few yards away, a vivid patch of yellow set against the lead-gray flank of the volcano. It was, I realized, the body of José Arlés Zapata. His head was bloody, his body contorted. His radio lay smashed beside him. Not far away, the three tourists were splayed across the field of scree. Bloodied and disfigured, they too were dead.

My backpack was now on fire. I managed to run a few more yards before a barrage of rocks cut me off at the legs, knocking me down once more. Rolling on my side, I looked down. A bone protruded from my lower left leg, poking through my torn, smoldering pants. Another projectile had nearly severed my right foot at the ankle; my boot dangled by a skein of tendons and flesh. I stared at my mangled legs and thought it odd that I didn't feel more pain.

There was no hope of supporting any weight on my right leg, so I tried to pull myself up on my left, which still had one bone intact. Wobbling, I rose to a crouch and teetered there. Bent in two, I lifted my eyes and saw a roiling, black plume of ash and debris ascending into the sky.

In seconds I fell on my face once more. This time I knew I was down for good. The eruption, only a few minutes old, was still going full bore. The ground shook as Galeras underwent what turned out to be the most powerful eruption in five years. The stench of sulfur filled the air as I dragged myself across the scree and hunkered behind a dark boulder.

Then, strangely, after ten or 15 minutes, it began to rain. Drizzle mingled with the ashes, coating my head with a gray paste. Rain penetrated the holes in my jacket and pants. Galeras's shaking finally eased, and the adrenaline quit coursing through my system. Exhausted, I put my head down on the craggy slope. Stay awake, I kept telling myself. Stay awake.


   
 

 WHEN GALERAS BLEW, roughly 75 scientists, including our team, were on field trips on and around the volcano—on its flanks, in the river valleys running off the mountain, in nearby towns. Besides ours, Marta Calvache's group was closest to the crater itself—perhaps 500 to 800 yards from the top. Marta was born in Galeras's shadow, and she has spent most of her professional life studying it. Her mastery of the volcano would save my life.

As soon as the eruption died down and the projectiles stopped flying, Marta and our colleague Patty Mothes bolted toward their jeep and headed up the mountain.Ash drifted down on the windshield as they sped toward the summit. At the police post, they confronted a grim scene. Volcanic bombs had knocked holes in the roof and walls. White-hot, angular rocks littered the ground. When Patty spat on one, it hissed back at her. The volcano still thrummed, howling like a strong wind.

Andy Adams and Mike Conway—both suffering minor burns and Conway with a broken hand—had made it to the top of the scarp. Luis LeMarie, both of his legs fractured and his clavicle broken, had been helped up the last few meters by Carlos Estrada. Now Marta and Patty, joined by several other rescuers, scrambled down the amphitheater wall. The group found Andy Macfarlane, who had collapsed with a minor skull fracture about 150 yards below, and hauled him up. Then, ignoring radio warnings of another possible eruption, Marta, Patty, and the others raced across the slopes of the still-chuffing volcano in search of more survivors. Somewhere on the lower half of the cone they found José Arlés, his skull cracked open. Patty saw the bodies of two of the tourists, their brains spilled out on the ground. And a few yards away from José Arlés, Marta spotted me. Of the rest—of Igor Menyailov and Nestor García, of Geoff Brown, Carlos Trujillo, and Fernando Cuenca—there was no sign. They had essentially been vaporized.


 
   

SIX YEARS AFTER THE eruption on Galeras I stood again at the crater's rim, scarcely recognizing the blasted pit spread out before me. The ledge on which Igor and Nestor knelt and sampled gases had disappeared. The western rim, where Geoff, Fernando, and Carlos had stood, had been partially blown away. Portions of the southwestern lip had collapsed.

As I gazed into the crater, I was struck by how tiny, in a geological sense, the fatal eruption had been. It was a mere hiccup, a blast so small that geologists decades hence will find no sign of it. Yet the eruption killed nine men, injured five others, and continues to ripple through the lives of dozens more. It nearly killed me.

What had happened? Galeras was not quiet, as we had thought, but merely plugged. The crater floor had effectively been welded shut, trapping the rising gas pressure. Eventually it gave way.

In hindsight, my colleagues and I realized that Galeras had been sending out clues—the tornillos, the screw-shaped seismographic signals indicating the slow movement of magmatic gas and fluids. Bernard Chouet, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, had noticed small numbers of them before the July 1992 eruption and had written a report stating that the same thing could happen again. He sent it to INGEOMINAS, the Colombian geological survey. I never saw a copy, and Chouet's Colombian colleagues, who had noticed 17 tornillos in early January 1993, never warned that this was a threat.

Only after further eruptions in 1993 did we finally come to understand that small numbers of tornillos at Galeras—even as few as one or two per day—might presage an eruption. But based on all available evidence at the time, the consensus at the observatory was that Galeras was safe.

Colleagues assured me I had done nothing wrong, that there was no way to have foreseen the eruption. What I didn't know was that a few of them had been saying quite the opposite to others, contending that I had recklessly led my colleagues to their deaths. When I first heard these accusations, I was too stunned to react. Now I shake my head in wonder. How easy it is to apply the knowledge we have now to the events of 1993. But for me, Marta, and the other scientists in Pasto, there was no such 20/20 vision. We studied the best available data. We made what looked like a sound decision. And just when we were on the cone, Galeras behaved capriciously, as natural forces are wont to do. I was fooled, and for that I take responsibility. But I do not feel guilty about the deaths of my colleagues. There is no guilt. There was only an eruption.   

Stanley Williams is a professor of geology at Arizona State University. Fen Montaigne is the author of the fly-fishing memoir Reeling in Russia. This article is excerpted from their forthcoming book, Surviving Galeras, to be published this month by Houghton Mifflin.

Next Month: Outside reports on the simultaneous publication of Surviving Galeras and rival geologist Victoria Bruce's No Apparent Danger: The True Story of Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado Del Ruiz. Did Williams, as Bruce charges, ignore warning signs that an eruption at Galeras was imminent and endanger his fellow scientists?



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