We all have our favourite stories. We like reading about volcanoes that erupt frequently, with impressive videos and preferably little damage. Stories of major and destructive eruptions are also liked, as long as they happened a long time ago and not within living memory. My personal favourite is Krakatau (the parent, not the child) – it is far enough behind us that we can visualize the spectacle but forget about the disaster.
Stories can be told in different ways. Stories give colour to the world; the writer picks the colour we should see. It may be told in primary, emotive colours, or it may show the world in mixed, imperfect shades. Our reading is coloured by the story writer. The clarity of black and white is a rarity.
And not everyone reads the story in the same way. We bring our own colours to the stories. In particular, the people who lived those stories may view them very differently from those who only read them. They may never want to see that captivating volcano again. The afterimage is a negative of the original; the best and the worst are two sides of the same coin.
The best volcanoes stories involve real, colourful but imperfect people in a world that threatens to overwhelm them. Here are two of those stories.
Mount Galunggung in Indonesia always was a dangerous volcano. The 2 km tall mountain has a horseshoe caldera, showing clear evidence for a destructive flank collapse. The 16-km3 debris flow, perhaps 20,000 years old and covering 170 km2, is still obvious in the landscape. It has shaped an area now known as the ‘thousand hills’. (In fact this is an underestimate as there are over 3500 hills.) The volcano erupts intermittently, with decades-long dormancy periods. The long dormancy adds to the danger as it encourages people to move back to the danger area. Several million people now live on the slopes and the remains of the debris flow. An eruption in 1822 reached VEI 5; the pyroclastic flows and lahars killed some 4000 people. But the 1982 eruption (VEI 4; April 1982-April 1983) is best remembered. It killed many fewer people (between 4 and 68, depending on which report to accept), partly because of it being a smaller eruption and partly (perhaps) due to improved risk management. However, it introduced a new danger to the world: that of people overhead.
Located about 170 km southeast of Jakarta, Mount Galunggung lies directly underneath one of the major flight paths to Australia. That wasn’t considered a problem. Aircraft carry radar, and this should detect any dangerous conditions ahead. This theory was about to be tested – and found wanting.
The date was June 24, 1982 and the airplane was flight BA9, on a multi-leg journey from Heathrow to Auckland. The plane had changed crew in Kuala Lumpur and was now on the way to Perth. It was night, and it promised to be a peaceful flight.
The following story is from an article by Jack Diamond, and is based on recollections by the captain of that flight, Eric Moody. The article begins with a profound remark by Moody:
We are the first generation of pilots who may go through a whole career without having a genuine emergency.
Isn’t that true in many areas of our world? We did not know how little resilience there was left in our hospitals until the epidemic hit. But in this case, the crew pulled through with flying colours.
All indications pointed at a quiet flight. The weather was fine, the night was dark, there were no warnings, and the on-board weather radar did not indicate any problems. It turned out, even radar can miss the invisible. Ahead, Mount Galunggung had suffered a significant explosion which had raised ash up to the stratosphere. Weather radar is sensitive to moisture – but this ash was dry and therefore did not return the radar signal. Satellite images could detect the dust, but not at night. They would not see the cloud until the next day. Unknown to the crew, the plane was heading directly towards an invisible, dense cloud of ash. Their preparedness for emergencies was about to be tested.
The captain was downstairs talking to the purser, when he was suddenly called back to the flight deck. This was the first hint of trouble:
As he [Eric Moody] climbed the stairs back, he noted puffs of smoke billowing from the vents at floor level and a smell which he described as acrid, or ionized electrical. He entered the flight deck to find the windscreens ablaze with the most intense display of St Elmo’s fire he had ever experienced.
That was just the start. Roger Greaves, the co-pilot, directed the captain’s attention to the engines:
The engine intakes […] were glowing as if lit from within. […] At the same time the St. Elmo’s fire on the windscreen had given way to a display of what looked like tracer bullets.
Immediately after this, engine number four cut out. The crew shut it down, as they were trained to do in case of an engine fire although there was no sign of a fire. But now things became worse, as engine number 2, 3 and 1 also went out in quick succession. The Boeing 747 was left with no working engine. As Moody later recalled, with perhaps a hint of understatement: ‘This seemed unusual’. He had trained with the flight simulator for complete engine failure, but this test had assumed it was part of a complete electrical outage. But here, the lights and many of the instruments were still working. Importantly, there was still power for the autopilot to work. It was a mystery why the engines had failed. The plane started to slow down and went into a slow, gliding descent.
The crew turned the plane back towards Jakarta and send out a mayday call. Moody later said it had been clear that they could not have reached Jakarta and would have had to make a water landing, with very little chance of survival. The co-pilot’s air mask was not working, and to avoid anoxia they went into a steeper dive, down to 20,000 feet. While gliding down, the crew continuously and frantically tried to restart the engines. The injected fuel ignited behind the engines giving the impression of fire hoses behind the engines. It must have been quite a sight for the startled passengers. But the engines stubbornly refused to restart. Now, at 14,000 feet, the air masks came down in the passenger cabin. It seemed high time to inform the passengers what was going on.
The announcement became legendary. Of course the passengers were already well aware that all was not well (far from it), long before the captain spoke:
Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.
Whether this was a British understatement or a sign of the extreme stress of the crew is up to the reader to decide. It was now 14 minutes after the engines had failed, and the plane had already descended 8 kilometers. And still the crew had no idea what had caused the problem; they assumed it was something they themselves had done. In fact, the problem was that volcanic ash had fused itself to the hot engine, but none of the instruments could have told them that. As Moody recalled, the fact that the auto pilot and some instruments were still working was a great help, as it gave the crew some time to think and discuss what to do. They decided to keep trying to restart, even engine 4 with the suspected fire.
As they descended, the stationary hot engines cooled. The cooling made the fused ash brittle, and it began to break off. Suddenly, engine 4 (the first one to fail) restarted. This allowed the crew to maintain altitude. It was followed in the next two minutes by the other three engines.
The crew decided that the priority was to regain altitude. However, when reaching 5 km altitude the St Elmo’s fire returned, and engine 2 began to fail and had to be turned off. Clearly, altitude was best avoided. The plane limped back to Jakarta at the lower altitude.
The emergency landing showed up a different problem: on the ground the landing lights of the plane seemed very faint, and from the plane the runway lights ahead were invisible. They had a hard time even locating the runway. It appeared that the front of the aircraft had been damaged, and the wind screen had become opaque. (Flying at 700 km/hr through sand paper does that, but the crew did not know this was what they had done.) The manual, blind landing was perhaps the hardest aspect of the emergency! It involved two crew members calling out the altitude and distance while the captain peered through a slit on the far left of the front window where the lights on one side of the runway were just about visible. Amazingly, in this way they manage a soft landing. But the subsequent taxiing proved too much: the glare through the opaque front window was blinding and removed all visibility. They had to stop and park the plane before reaching the parking area.
The passengers had aged by about a decade during the 15 minute gliding flight, I expect. The captain and his crew had saved them in the first, and hopefully only, genuine emergency in their flying careers. During the event they did not know what had caused it. It was only after the landing that they noticed the black, volcanic ash on their clothes which gave a clue to the cause of the emergency. The plane had lost the paint at the front, and the abrasion of the window (and the covers of the landing light) had made the glas opaque. They had unintentionally, and without warning, flown at high speed through a storm of abrasive ash.
And it would happen again. On July 13 of that year, a Singapore Airline flight lost 3 of its 4 engines in the ash over Mount Galunggung. Only after that was the airspace above Mount Galunggung finally closed to all flights.
And if you ever wondered why a small Icelandic eruption closed the North Atlantic airspace for weeks, this is why.
The story can be read on Moody’s personal website. http://www.ericmoody.com
Mount Terror is the poorly known sister to its illustrious sibling Mount Erebus. The names induce fear: Erebus is named after the Greek god of darkness, whilst terror speaks for itself. Erebus is perpetually active with a lava lake, but Mount Terror is believed to be extinct. The two volcanoes live on Ross Island, along the McMurdo Sound, gateway to Antarctica. Both Scott and Shackleton started their expeditions here.
In 1911, Scott was wintering at Cape Evans, below Erebus, preparing for a dash to the south pole. Three members of his party, Edward Wilson, Henry Robertson Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Garrard, decided to go on a mid-winter trek to Cape Crozier, on the far side of Mount Terror and the most distant part of the island, in the name of science. The goal was to collect one or more early eggs from the emperor penguins. At the time penguins (as non-flying birds) were thought to be the most primitive birds, and therefore their embryos might show what animals birds had evolved from. (Nowadays, of course, we know that penguins are indeed an ancient family, but hardly primitive.) The 200-km journey took the science explorers more than a month, in which they traveled through the harshest, coldest and stormiest weather the continent could throw at them, manually pulling their two very heavy sledges through impossible terrain.
I have met with amusement people who say, “Oh, we had minus fifty temperatures in Canada; they didn’t worry me,” or “I’ve been down to minus sixty something in Siberia.” And then you find that they had nice dry clothing, a nice night’s sleep in a nice aired bed, and had just walked out after lunch for a few minutes from a nice warm hut or an overheated train. And they look back upon it as an experience to be remembered. Well! of course as an experience of cold this can only be compared to eating a vanilla ice with hot chocolate cream after an excellent dinner at Claridge’s. But in our present state we began to look upon minus fifties as a luxury which we did not often get.
It was hard. They lived in frozen clothes, which in the tent would melt and become soaking wet – without any chance of drying. In the morning the wet sleeping bags, but also the clothes would instantly freeze again, leaving them unbendable. It was important to pick the right composure before this happened, as that body shape would be very hard to undo until the next melt.
It was a little later on when we were among crevasses, with Terror above us, but invisible, somewhere on our left, and the Barrier pressure on our right. We were quite lost in the darkness, and only knew that we were running downhill, the sledge almost catching our heels. There had been no light all day, clouds obscured the moon, we had not seen her since yesterday. And quite suddenly a little patch of clear sky drifted, as it were, over her face, and she showed us three paces ahead a great crevasse with just a shining icy lid not much thicker than glass. We should all have walked into it, and the sledge would certainly have followed us down. After that I felt we had a chance of pulling through: God could not be so cruel as to have saved us just to prolong our agony.
The view from eight hundred feet up the mountain was magnificent and I got my spectacles out and cleared the ice away time after time to look. To the east a great field of pressure ridges below, looking in the moonlight as if giants had been ploughing with ploughs which made furrows fifty or sixty feet deep: these ran right up to the Barrier edge, and beyond was the frozen Ross Sea, lying flat, white and peaceful as though such things as blizzards were unknown. To the north and north-east the Knoll. Behind us Mount Terror on which we stood, and over all the grey limitless Barrier seemed to cast a spell of cold immensity, vague, ponderous, a breeding-place of wind and drift and darkness. God! What a place!
After weeks in which they often did just a few miles a day, they arrived at Cape Crozier. The three men managed to find the penguin colony, and saw the antics of the penguins as the birds fought each other for the eggs – or for any rock with an egg shape. They were planning to spend some time here. On the journey the team had been sleeping in their tent, but now they build a partial igloo out of rocks and snow and covered it with their spare canvas. The tent was put up beside, to cover all their supplies. The camp was set up in the protective lee of a rocky ridge of Mount Terror.
That turned out to have been a bad idea. Just after they had collected the first precious eggs, the weather got the better of them. Overnight, a force-12 hurricane hit. What had seemed like shelter now became a trap. The wind came over the ridge and pulled a near-vacuum behind it, right above them. The camp became subject to a giant vacuum cleaner trying to remove this unwanted human debris.
“Bill, Bill, the tent has gone,” was the next I remember—from Bowers shouting at us again and again through the door. It is always these early morning shocks which hit one hardest: our slow minds suggested that this might mean a peculiarly lingering form of death. Journey after journey Birdie and I fought our way across the few yards which had separated the tent from the igloo door. I have never understood why so much of our gear which was in the tent remained, even in the lee of the igloo. The place where the tent had been was littered with gear, and when we came to reckon up afterwards we had everything except the bottom piece of the cooker, and the top of the outer cooker. We never saw these again. The most wonderful thing of all was that our finnesko [fur boots made from reindeer hide] were lying where they were left, which happened to be on the ground in the part of the tent which was under the lee of the igloo. Also Birdie’s bag of personal gear was there, and a tin of sweets.
Later that night, the canvas on their igloo went as well, completely disintegrating in the wind. It left them with no cover against the elements other than their frozen sleeping bags:
The top of the door opened in little slits and that green Willesden canvas flapped into hundreds of little fragments in fewer seconds than it takes to read this. The uproar of it all was indescribable. Even above the savage thunder of that great wind on the mountain came the lash of the canvas as it was whipped to little tiny strips. The highest rocks which we had built into our walls fell upon us, and a sheet of drift came in.
Birdie dived for his sleeping-bag and eventually got in, together with a terrible lot of drift. Bill also—but he was better off: I was already half into mine and all right, so I turned to help Bill. “Get into your own,” he shouted, and when I continued to try and help him, he leaned over until his mouth was against my ear. “Please, Cherry,” he said, and his voice was terribly anxious. I know he felt responsible: feared it was he who had brought us to this ghastly end.
The next I knew was Bowers’ head across Bill’s body. “We’re all right,” he yelled, and we answered in the affirmative. Despite the fact that we knew we only said so because we knew we were all wrong, this statement was helpful. Then we turned our bags over as far as possible, so that the bottom of the bag was uppermost and the flaps were more or less beneath us. And we lay and thought, and sometimes we sang.
there seemed not one chance in a million that we should ever see our tent again. We were 900 feet up on the mountain side, and the wind blew about as hard as a wind can blow straight out to sea. First there was a steep slope, so hard that a pick made little impression upon it, so slippery that if you started down in finnesko you never could stop: this ended in a great ice-cliff some hundreds of feet high, and then came miles of pressure ridges, crevassed and tumbled, in which you might as well look for a daisy as a tent: and after that the open sea. The chances, however, were that the tent had just been taken up into the air and dropped somewhere in this sea well on the way to New Zealand. Obviously the tent was gone.
Two days later they were still lying in their bags waiting for the wind to drop. The hurricane had brought in warmer air, perhaps only -10C, and this helped them to survive. Now it became calm enough to get up and out and start looking for the tent, first in vain in the dark. When it got brighter they tried again:
It was still dark and we lay down in our bags again, but soon a little glow of light began to come up, and we turned out to have a further search for the tent. Birdie went off before Bill and me. Clumsily I dragged my eider-down out of my bag on my feet, all sopping wet: it was impossible to get it back and I let it freeze: it was soon just like a rock. The sky to the south was as black and sinister as it could possibly be. It looked as though the blizzard would be on us again at any moment.
I followed Bill down the slope. We could find nothing. But, as we searched, we heard a shout somewhere below and to the right. We got on a slope, slipped, and went sliding down quite unable to stop ourselves, and came upon Birdie with the tent, the outer lining still on the bamboos. Our lives had been taken away and given back to us.
We were so thankful we said nothing.
The tent must have been gripped up into the air, shutting as it rose. The bamboos, with the inner lining lashed to them, had entangled the outer cover, and the whole went up together like a shut umbrella. This was our salvation. If it had opened in the air nothing could have prevented its destruction. As it was, with all the accumulated ice upon it, it must have weighed the best part of 100 lbs. It had been dropped about half a mile away, at the bottom of a steep slope: and it fell in a hollow, still shut up. The main force of the wind had passed over it, and there it was, with the bamboos and fastenings wrenched and strained, and the ends of two of the poles broken, but the silk untorn.
And so they started back, carrying a precious cargo of three eggs, pulling a sledge with a broken tent, very little oil for the small heater, and a supply of biscuits and sweets, while already weakened from the ordeal.
The horrors of that return journey are blurred to my memory and I know they were blurred to my body at the time. I think this applies to all of us, for we were much weakened and callous. The day we got down to the penguins I had not cared whether I fell into a crevasse or not. We had been through a great deal since then. I know that we slept on the march; for I woke up when I bumped against Birdie, and Birdie woke when he bumped against me. I think Bill steering out in front managed to keep awake. I know we fell asleep if we waited in the comparatively warm tent when the primus was alight—with our pannikins or the primus in our hands. I know that our sleeping-bags were so full of ice that we did not worry if we spilt water or hoosh over them as they lay on the floor-cloth, when we cooked on them with our maimed cooker. They were so bad that we never rolled them up in the usual way when we got out of them in the morning: we opened their mouths as much as possible before they froze, and hoisted them more or less flat on to the sledge. All three of us helped to raise each bag, which looked rather like a squashed coffin and was probably a good deal harder. I know that if it was only -40° when we camped for the night we considered quite seriously that we were going to have a warm one, and that when we got up in the morning if the temperature was in the minus sixties we did not enquire what it was. The day’s march was bliss compared to the night’s rest, and both were awful. We were about as bad as men can be and do good travelling: but I never heard a word of complaint, nor, I believe, an oath, and I saw self-sacrifice standing every test.
And they made it back, against all odds, a week earlier than had been expected on departure. Was it worth it? The eggs disproved a perhaps already disproven theory. Failure is an essential part of scientific progress. But sacrifice in the name of failure does not show up in the list of scientific successes.
A few months later the Scott expedition left for the pole. Cherry-Garrard came with but was not in the final party that made the last push. He went back to base camp, while the others struggled, came second, and failed to return. Cherry-Garrard would later find the frozen bodies of his two companions when he discovered the remains of the expedition. His book about Scott’s Antarctica expedition is called The worst journey in the world. The excerpts above are from that book. But the title does not refer to the disastrous push for the pole. It refers to the journey to an extinct volcano in the hunt for eggs. Read it (you want Chapter 7): the writing has the colour of bleak optimism, and the terror of Mount Terror.
Volcanoes provide the perfect canvas for story telling, and for showing human responses to the uncaring and dangerous environments that volcanoes create. They yield us the best of times and the worst of times. There is no black and white here: the human colour is that of the significant insignificance of people against volcanoes. A small step for a volcano is a giant leap for us.
What are your favourite volcano stories?
Albert, January 2021