Advertisement

Opposing Tales of Tragedy in the Mouth of a Volcano

March 23, 2001|KENNETH REICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight years ago, a team of scientists rappelled down the crater of a 14,000-foot active volcano in Colombia to conduct some tests. Just as the scientists were climbing back out of Galeras, it erupted, shooting rock and debris through the air. It was a small and brief eruption, but a deadly one.

Six scientists and three hikers who happened to be in the crater with them were killed. The expedition's leader, Arizona State University volcanologist Stanley Williams, was one of the seven survivors, though he was injured so badly that, by his own estimate, he may never fully recover. Ninety minutes after the eruption, volcanologists Marta Calvache, director of the Galeras Volcanic Observatory, and Patty Mothes, an American usually based in Quito, Ecuador, reached the rim, picked their way into the crater and pulled Williams and the others to safety.

Williams suffered burns and a skull fracture so serious that his brain was exposed, and his nose, jaw and both legs were broken.

Now two competing books about the event and what led up to it are being published, one written by Williams, a fractious iconoclast in volcanic research and sometime critic of the U.S. Geological Survey, and the other holding him responsible for the deaths.

Williams, 48, joined by writer Fen Montaigne, has written "Surviving Galeras" (Houghton Mifflin), which details the disaster and attempts to rebuff his critics. It is due to hit stores April 17.

The second book, out April 2 from HarperCollins, is titled "No Apparent Danger" and was written by Victoria Bruce, a 34-year-old former NASA science writer who holds a master's degree in geology. Her book charges that Williams was negligent in leading his party into the volcano because there were warning signs of danger. She also says Williams misrepresented other aspects of the tragedy.

In the wake of other recent successful outdoor disaster tales, both publishers have high hopes for their books. Williams and Montaigne received a reported advance of about $500,000 with a first printing of 150,000. Bruce signed a deal "in the mid-six figures," with a first printing of 100,000.

*

There is no nicety in the dispute between the authors and their supporters. Bruce asks in the book, "Would you let the people who went with you not know that there was some risk? There had been warnings. Had that information been passed on, the others could have made the decision whether to go for themselves. No one was told. It was like the sailing captain who takes a crew out without letting them know that there's a hurricane watch."

But Williams insists in his book there were no clear warnings. "How easy it is to snipe after the fact," he observes. "We studied the best available data. We made what looked like a sound decision. And just when we were on the cone, Galeras behaved capriciously, as natural forces are wont to do. I was fooled, and for that I will take responsibility. But I do not feel guilty about the deaths of my colleagues. There is no guilt. There was only an eruption."

Yet survivor Andrew MacFarlane, a Florida International University geologist, recalled in an interview last week, "Right after the eruption, the first thing [Williams] said to me was that he felt terribly guilty for what had happened and that he felt like it was his fault."

Behind the dispute there is quite a history. Williams, in his two decades of volcanic research--10 of those as a professor at Arizona State--has clashed repeatedly with the Geological Survey over his outspokenness. Leading Survey volcanic researchers, such as Bernard Chouet, Randy White and Dan Miller, make no secret of their disdain for Williams, who has often warned of cataclysmic developments at such sites as Popocatepetl outside Mexico City and Mammoth Mountain in California; while they have been much more reserved.

Bruce independently investigated the events at Galeras. "I had no idea what happened at Galeras when I started researching. I had no idea what I would find and had no idea there was bad feeling between the USGS and Williams," she said.

*

These are the main disputes between Bruce and Williams, and their responses:

* Was there warning of the eruption Williams should have heeded?

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|