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 cont

Apr 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

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.