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COLUMN ONE : In Pursuit of Deadly Volcanoes : Three who died in Japan's eruption belonged to an elite group engaged in daredevil research considered among the most glamorous and dangerous in science.

June 25, 1991|RON RUSSELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the day Japan's Mt. Unzen claimed his life, 33-year-old scientist Harry Glicken was chasing an obsession.

It began when he was a teen-ager growing up in Los Angeles, sustained him through college and led him to the crests of some of the world's most enchanting and deadly mountains, including Washington state's Mt. St. Helens, where he narrowly escaped death.

"Harry wanted to study volcanoes," his sister said. "If there was an epitaph, I guess that would be it."

Found alongside Glicken, only two miles from Mt. Unzen's fiery summit, were the husband-and-wife team of Maurice and Katia Krafft, both in their mid-40s. "Some friends would say I am nuts," Maurice Krafft once offered, "but if tomorrow I would die in a volcano I would be satisfied that I have seen enough."

Filmmakers as well as volcanologists, the Kraffts of France had gained a reputation during 25 years as the world's premier volcano chasers.

"They were the last of a breed," lamented Lindsay McClelland, a volcanologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

The deaths of the three volcanologists--who were enveloped in a hurricane of rocks and poison gas when the 4,485-foot mountain exploded on June 3--is the worst tragedy in nearly four decades to hit their profession.

The grief, ironically, comes at a time of intense excitement for volcanologists who today have the rare opportunity to observe two simultaneous and spectacular eruptions in Japan and the Philippines, where Mt. Pinatubo has created widespread destruction.

Although there are nearly 1,000 volcanologists worldwide, only a few dozen engage in the kind of daredevil research that cost Glicken and the Kraffts their lives.

The trio belonged to an elite, loosely organized fraternity that has dubbed itself the "Active Volcano Working Group," whose members undertake missions considered among the most glamorous and dangerous in science.

Armed with high-tech sensors, the front-line work of these volcanologists has added significantly to our understanding of when a volcano will erupt--and for how long. That means a better chance of saving lives, because imperiled areas can be evacuated.

'My wife says I'm a cat with nine lives and she worries that I'm going to use them up," said Juergen Kienle, 52, one of the group's veteran members. No wonder.

In 1976, Kienle and two others crashed their helicopter after lifting off in a heavy snowstorm from the frozen slopes of Augustine Volcano, located on an island off the Alaskan coast. For three days, the scraped and bruised men gathered hot volcanic pumice and used a copper tube from the helicopter to drip motor oil onto the pile, making a crude heater.

Ten hours after their rescue, the mountain erupted, engulfing the spot where they had been marooned.

On another occasion, Kienle's helicopter plunged into a mountain lake and sank. He and the pilot managed to pry the doors open underwater and swim to the surface.

"Everybody has their own worry threshold," said Norman Banks, 51, who has studied volcanoes for the U. S. Geological Survey for 24 years. "There have been times when I was scared out of my wits and other times I did things and realized later I had no business doing them."

In Hawaii in 1983, Banks once lost his balance and sank into molten lava up to his knee, suffering third-degree burns. He survived by recalling the advice of a geologist who had a similar experience years earlier: He lunged backward, out of the lava flow, then rolled over to extricate his leg.

Two years earlier, while installing a seismic sensor on a cinder cone in the Mariana Islands, he was saved by a technician's radio call that the mountain was about to blow. Running, he reached his vehicle at the base of the 1,000-foot cone just as lava began pouring over the top.

Unlike scientists who study dormant and extinct volcanoes through rock deposits that are millions of years old, members of the active volcano group are obsessed with being on the cutting edge, studying geological processes as they occur.

"It's tempting to go to the throat of the volcano to get the data, because if you do you're a hero," explained Ken Wohletz, 39, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a member of the volcano working group. "It's a battle between your mind and your emotions. If your emotions win out, you can get yourself in a lot of trouble. . . .

"There is a fine line between tragedy and an incident that can turn out to be no big deal," he added. "It all depends on what the mountain decides to do."

Wohletz recounted a close call in 1976 at a volcano on the island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. As he descended into a crater to install seismic sensors that detect earth movement, the mountain began puffing smoke and steam. As it turned out, it was only a warm-up and not the precursor of an imminent eruption.

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