In January 1993, expert volcanologist Dr. Stanley Williams led a group of volcanologists into the crater of Galeras volcano in Colombia. It erupted without warning and killed six of Dr. Williams' colleagues. Here, he answers questions from Scholastic Network.
What did it feel like when you knew Galeras was erupting?
When I knew that Galeras was about to erupt, I told my friends to try to run but it exploded before anyone could really move. Within minutes, nine people were dead and I was really hurt. I had to lie there through the eruption, which lasted for about 15 minutes. After another hour, it erupted again for two minutes. Finally, my student Marta reached me after about two and a half hours.
How did you survive the volcanic eruption?
I survived the eruption, even though six of my friends died, because I was very lucky and my own student, Marta, was very brave. Marta is a small woman from Pasto, Colombia, the city near the volcano. Even though she was far away when the eruption happened, she knew what the special, roaring thunderlike noise was and she came to the top of the volcano looking for the scientists. I had been hit by lots of rocks, so my skull was cracked and my legs were broken. The volcanic rocks, broken by the explosive eruption, were very hot and I got burned all over my legs and back. Marta and another woman, Patty, who is from the United States but lives in Ecuador and studies volcanoes, were brave and found me and carried me out.
What happened after you left the volcano that last day?
A Colombian doctor saved my life by doing brain surgery on me — that means that he had to take the pieces of rock out of my brain. He was very good and I took him out to a good dinner when I went back there. He was happy to see how well I am, despite the very bad injuries.
Have you gone back to Galeras since the eruption?
I was back at Galeras in August 1994. We were planning on collecting more gas samples. But the volcano gave signals that it was thinking about erupting again, so I did not go back into the crater.
Did your experiences with Galeras help predict future explosions so that lives would be saved?
We looked at that horrible experience and the theory of earthquakes and found that there may have been a pattern of the Long-Period earthquakes before we had the eruption. We have published a scientific paper about how we may have forecasted the eruption.
What safety precautions do you take when you study volcanoes now?
When I go into a volcano crater, I wear a very strong helmet that covers the hole in my head that Galeras made, and I always have a gas mask, which filters out the poisonous gases and makes it possible for me to breathe. I also carry a radio and stay as short a time as possible.
Since your work is dangerous, why do you continue?
I continue to study volcanoes because that is what I am very curious about. There are about 500 million people in the world who live so close to volcanoes that they are in danger if a volcano erupts. As a volcanologist, I am trying to understand the danger signals, so that I can help people avoid disaster. It has been bad enough in this century, with 28,000 dying in a few minutes in 1902 when Mount Pelee erupted and with 25,000 dying in 1985 when Ruiz erupted in Colombia. As the world population increases, people are forced to live in more and more dangerous places.
Can you compare being burned by lava to anything else?
It is very hard to compare things like being burned. I know that I was lucky because I did not have something like gasoline spilled on me. I had bright white rocks fall from the sky onto me and burn spots of my legs and back because my clothes and backpack caught on fire. I rolled around on the ground and put out the fires.