Eruption Threatens Heimaey
BY “AWAKE” CORRESPONDENT IN ICELAND
JUST before midnight last January 22 two slight earthquakes were felt by inhabitants of Heimaey, a tiny island ten miles off the southern coast of Iceland. But no one connected the tremors with Helgafell, the island’s long-dormant volcano.
Then at 2 a.m. a woman called the fire department and reported huge flames. She thought that a house had caught fire. A closer check, however, disclosed the shocking facts.
The earth had ripped apart and was spurting out fire and steam! It “looked like the earth was exploding,” said the island’s school inspector Jonas Sigurdsson. The fissure had opened on the eastern slope of Helgafell, only a few yards from the nearest houses.
Soon the whole town was in action. People were running to and fro, some down to the harbor, others to get a closer view of the spectacle. Fountains of lava were leaping over 300 feet in the air!
Heimaey is only three miles long, and has but one town. One of its 5,000 inhabitants reports:
“I was awakened by loud knocking at the door, and heard people running around and shouting. Here most people are fast asleep at 2 a.m. So I shouted: ‘What’s going on?’
“‘Eruption! Eruption! Eruption on the island!’ was the answer.
“I dressed in a hurry and rushed out. Toward the southeast I saw a red flare on the sky about a mile away. I went to get a closer look. It was like a wall of fire! The fissure from which the lava was spewing was over a mile long. It was a breathtaking sight!
“Some men let out two frightened horses. One ran into town. But the other horse panicked, and headed toward the fissure. It seemed to disappear right into it. However, I learned later that it was shot by a policeman before it perished in the fire.
“Cattle on a nearby farm were set free, and they were strolling about the streets. They were later taken to a freezing plant, where they were slaughtered.
“After observing the eruption for a while, I noticed that ashes were accumulating. I hurried downtown to find my sister and her family, but they had already left. People were being urged by the police to leave the island as soon as possible.
“About 5 a.m. there was an increase in the ash and solidified lava that spewed from the volcano. It was not unlike a hailstorm. There was also a foul smell, and my eyes became sore.
“I gathered together a few of my things, put them in a small bag, and hurried down to the harbor. I boarded a fishing boat, and left the island about 6 a.m.”
The day before the eruption, the Icelandic Civil Defense had held a meeting to check and review evacuation plans for the island in case of disaster. Who could have imagined that within a few hours the plans would be in full use!
Many were reluctant to leave their homes, since the situation did not at first seem critical. So they had to be ordered to go. By 6 a.m. most of the 5,000 inhabitants had left the island, about 800 by air and the rest by boat.
Some officials have called the evacuation one of the fastest and most effective ever performed. Other persons have criticized it, saying that more property could have been salvaged if they had been allowed to stay longer on the island.
The first day there was little damage. The lava flow buried only one house, the occupants escaping in their nightclothes. But the next day the houses closest to the craters caught fire. After one week the volcano had destroyed about a hundred houses, most of them newly built. Some collapsed under the weight of the ashes on their roofs.
Over two million tons of ashes and cinders are estimated to have fallen over the island during the first few days. Some houses are under a layer over twenty feet thick! It is estimated that about 600 tons accumulated on the roof of the hospital. Some believe that the town is going to be a modern Pompeii, despite all efforts to save it.
The lava flow is mainly into the sea, enlarging the island. At first the flow did not threaten the town. But on March 23 huge earthen fortifications built to protect the town were thrust aside by a thirty-foot-high wave of lava. The lava engulfed dozens of houses, and rescue workers feared that the rest of the town would also be destroyed.
Many ask, How long is the eruption going to continue? This is impossible to predict. In 1963 an eruption raised from the ocean depths a few miles away the new island of Surtsey, with a 480-foot-high cone of solidified lava. That eruption lasted four years.
The day after the eruption on Heimaey, most of the 800 automobiles on the island were transported to the mainland. Salvage crews emptied houses in danger and shoveled ashes from the roofs. They also covered windows and doors with iron sheets. On January 30, one week after the eruption began, a visitor reported:
“As we entered the harbor, the roaring volcano was bombing the vicinity with glowing stones. Furious explosions sent fire columns 1,500 feet into the sky! The fire lit up the town and surrounding mountains.
“The town looked like a violent blizzard had hit it. But instead of snow, there were ashes and cinders. It was a sad sight. Salvagers were everywhere, all wearing security helmets because of the rain of lava.”
The eruption is a real economic setback for Iceland. Heimaey’s eighty boats, four freezing plants, three fish-meal and fish-oil factories had been responsible for 12 percent of the country’s exports.
Ten days after the eruption began, one fish-meal factory started operating again, despite the danger to workers. But when the lava flow threatened to close the harbor, it was decided to move all plant equipment to the mainland. Salvage operations have cost millions of dollars.
To those who think exclusively of material riches, events of recent days mast be an unbearable disaster. But those who truly value life are grateful that no one was killed in this recent eruption on Heimaey.