Tuesday 20 April 2010

Surviving The Volcano by Stanley Williams

Pages - 241

Challenges - Every Month is a Holiday

Published by Abacus in 2001

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. Perched at 14,000 feet on a cone of volcanic debris in southwestern Colombia, we were checking the vital signs of Galeras - gases, gravity, anything that would tells us whether the volcanon might erupt.

As I mentioned in Sunday's post, I picked this book up before the volcano erupted in Iceland and it is purely coincidental. I had nothing to do with the volcano erupting and causing mayhem around the world. Honest!

I actually read it to coincide with Earth week which is this week. For those of you who are unaware of Earth Week, it is a week-long celebration of the Earth and the environment, in order to get environmental sustainability into the hearts and minds of the world. What better way to promote it than reading about one of Earth's most powerful attributes.

This book is a non fiction account of a volcanic eruption that occurred on Galeras, a Colombian volcano in 1993. Stanley Williams was standing on top of the volcano when it erupted and witnesses several of his colleagues incinarated instantly. Williams did all that he could to escape the mountain, whilst it pelted him with white hot stones, which were faster than bullets and nearly broke his ankle off completely. He could not move and lay helplessly there whilst the volcano continued to spit rock at him. If it wasn't for the courage of two very brave women who mounted a rescue party to save him and his colleagues, he would not be with us today.

I had certain expectations of this book before I read it based purely on the blurb at the back and not because I love a good disaster, because I am not that kind of person. I can't even watch any type of disasters, real or fantasy on the TV. Normally I will bury my head in the sand or put my fingers in my ears if disasters are shown, because they scare the hell out of me.

However, I had assumed that Williams was the only one to be rescued and perhaps the only survivor, yet it was clear as I read the book that that wasn't the case. In fact, I became aware that the other volcanologists who were rescued were a little bit peeved at Williams ten minutes of fame as the only survivor when they too managed to live to tell the tale. In the book, Williams who was head of the team that was carrying out research on the mountain that day, was blamed for taking the limelight, as well as putting his team in danger in the first place, by not realising the mountain was about to erupt. Williams freely admits to taking his moment in history as a soul survivor and does apologise for it, however, he makes no claims to being responsible for taking the team up there in the first place. As far as he was concerned, the rest of the team had the same knowledge that he had and all went willingly.

Another assumption I had about this book, was that the eruption was a huge one that shattered the surrounding towns around it. Fortunately, it never affected the villages below and some of the residents had not realised until the news told them that it had in fact erupted. I am quite thankful to think that the villagers did not suffer as if the eruption had been bigger, whole villages could have been wiped out. The fact that lives were lost, is upsetting, however, I am not sure that they died in vain, as a lot was learnt from this eruption, which allowed them to realise when a volcano is basically plugging itself up and quietening down as it is preparing itself for eruption.

My last assumption was that the rescue of Williams was a long and drawn out one, similar to scenes from the Pierce Brosnan film, Dante's Peak. For his sake and the other survivors, I am so glad it wasn't. I had imagined them struggling to get him down from the mountain, where in actual fact, he was rescued within a couple of hours of the volcano going off.

I am not saying that this book isn't heroic and very traumatic, because it most definitely is, I just think I was expecting the content to be different, in accordance with the blurb on the back. My highly active imagination got slightly carried away, and in truth I am pleased for the survivors that they did not have to suffer more than they did. I am upset that anyone had to perish at all. I almost feel that the publishers misled the audience about the content of the book.

Once I came to terms with my assumptions being totally wrong, I have to say I found this book extremely fascinating in parts and heartwrenching in others. There was lots more to it, than just the account of the volcano exploding. A lot of extremely talented volcanologists lost there lives on that volcano and you cannot help but wonder, if they didn't know it was going to go off, with all their years of studying volcanoes, what chance do the rest of civilization have. Especially as so many people actually live very close to or on active volcanoes. Did you know that if Mount Vesuvius erupted in the near future, it would wipe out Naples.

Before reading this book, I wasn't aware how many volcanoes were actually active. America has had 67 volcanoes active over the last several thousand years, 52 of which are in Alaska alone. I never really thought about the affects they would have on the Earth, but when you think about the fact that they believe the last big eruption of the Iceland volcano led to the Irish potato famine, due to the sun being blocked out for such long period of time. It is a little scary. I am beginning to wonder if I was better off, when I didn't know so much about volcanoes, especially under the present circumstances!

Here is a passage from the book that really grabbed my attention.

When and where will the next volcanic disaster strike? We don't really know, but there are some things we can say with certainty. First 1,500 active volcanoes worldwide potentially threaten about 500 million people. Second, rapid population growth in the developing world has put far more people near volcanoes than ever before. Third, in any given year, about 50 volcanoes erupt worldwide. Fourth, every decade the world experiences an eruption the size of that at Mount Helens, every century we see an eruption the size of Pinatubo's and every 500 to 1,00years we can expect a blast as massive as Tambora's. Fifth, the Earth has been shaped by eruptions far larger than these, and at some time in the coming millennia- perhaps in 2,000 years, perhaps in 50,000- we are likely to see an apocalyptic blast that could kill millions of people and seriously alter the earth's climate.

Food for thought, I feel. Such a cheerful post for everyone today. If you are interested in how volcanoes work and the history of eruptions, then this is definitely a book worth reading. Happy Earth Week!

PS. I have reread this post so many times and I am still not sure if I am happy with it. I don't want to come across as callous at all. I really did get the impression before I read it that it would be a story of one man's survival to get off the volcano, yet that was just a small part of it. I hate to read about anyone dying at all, let alone in such extreme situations like this. My thoughts are with the families of the volcanologists past and present, who put their lives in extreme danger in order to help the rest of us stay safe. Without them, so many people would have died, without evacuation procedures and constant monitoring being in place.


  1. WOW....are you psychic?

    Seriously, this book sounds rather fascinating.

  2. Vivienne, your review doesn't come across as callow at all. It's just disconcerting when you read the back cover, get reasonable expectations and then it's barely covered in the book. It's like bait and switch and I can see where it would be a disappointment.

  3. Great review Vivienne. I think it's a really interesting book that I will keep in mind.

  4. Great review Vivienne. I think it's a really interesting book that I will keep in mind.

  5. Wow, that sounds rather scary. For some reason, I have always been fascinated by volcanoes and love to watch their eruptions (on TV, obviously).

  6. Spooky! But not at all callous. I must admit that when I read the word 'traumatic' I was put off just a litte bit.

  7. Supervolcanoes are scary! I think the next one will be Yellowstone and that one will blast away a continent

  8. Diane - it looks that way.LOL.

    Kaye - thankyou. I was a little worried.

    Andreea - I did enjoy reading it, even though the topic is a quite sad.

    Kathy - I have to admit to being mesmorised by volcano eruptions. They are beautiful to watch, just so devastating to the environment.

    Petty Witter - I shall watch what I pick up in future!

    Blodeuedd - Yellowstone - now there is a scary thought!

  9. You don't sound callous at all, Vivienne, don't worry. This book sounds fascinating, but now's a scary time to know more about volcanoes, yes. And Yellowstone...I refuse to even THINK about that :S

  10. I often think that blurbs are misleading for books! And then books are either vaguely unsatisfying, or satisfying in a very unexpected way.

    And you are not callous at all!

  11. Your review isn't callous at all Viv. It's very good. I find all this kind of stuff fascinating - more in how our earth works than in anyone getting hurt in anything happening.

    I know what you mean about reading the back blurb and having much different expectations than what actually happens. It's really a bit of a letdown when that happens since a lot of the time you pick up a book because of the blurb.

  12. We are relatively close to Iceland here in Denmark (as Vivienne in UK) and we were affected by that ash cloud closing the airspace for days. Anyway, no one died, so not traumatic at all.

    What made me think a bit was, that yesterday, it suddenly became awfully cold AND started snowing. Very much "The Road"....although it is not raining ashes!!

  13. great review, it sounds interesting. very cool that you learned some new facts about volcanoes.


Hiya, thanks for stopping by, it is always nice to hear what you have to say, so do leave a comment if you have time.