Cover image for Surviving Galeras
Surviving Galeras
Williams, Stanley, 1952-
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Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
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270 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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QE22.W45 A3 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Through a harrowing first-person account of an eruption and its aftermath, SURVIVING GALERAS reveals the fascinating, high-risk realm of volcanology and explores the profound impact volcanoes have had on the earth's landscapes and civilizations.
In 1993, Stanley Williams, an eminent volcanologist, was standing on top of a Colombian volcano called Galeras when it erupted, killing six of his colleagues instantly. As Williams tried to escape the blast, he was pelted with white-hot projectiles traveling faster than bullets. Within seconds he was cut down, his skull fractured, his right leg almost severed, his backpack aflame. Williams lay helpless and near death on Galeras's flank until two brave women -- friends and fellow volcanologists -- mounted an astonishing rescue effort to carry him safely off the mountain.
The tale of how Williams survived Galeras is the framework for a groundbreaking book about volcanoes, their physical and cultural impact, and the tiny cadre of scientists who risk their own lives to gain knowledge that might one day save many others' lives.
Volcanoes unleash supremely powerful, unpredictable forces, and we have paid dearly for our understanding of their behavior. Even with ever more sensitive measuring tools and protective equipment, at least one volcanologist, on average, dies each year. Yet Williams and his fellow scientist-adventurers continue to unveil the enigmatic and miraculous workings of volcanoes and to piece together methods for predicting their actions. Volcanologists often put themselves in peril, not only because the discipline attracts risk-takers but because they know that volcanoes threaten as many as 500 million people worldwide. For Seattle, Tokyo, Mexico City, Naples -- and for volcanologists -- the clock is ticking.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

These facts are not in dispute: on January 14, 1993, Galeras, a volcano in southern Colombia, erupted, killing nine people who were part of an expedition to study the mountain. Everything else related to this tragedy is cloaked in confusion, just as the mountain itself was shrouded in clouds the morning of a fateful expedition. These two explosive (pardon the pun) accounts offer dueling perspectives not only of the disaster but also of the volcanology and the role egoism plays in the competitive world of science. Geologist Bruce had hoped to cowrite Williams' book. Williams was in charge of the disastrous Galeras expedition, during which he was grievously injured, sustaining two broken legs and a nearly severed foot, two fractured vertebrae, and a life-threatening head injury that drove bone fragments into his brain, broke his jaw, left him deaf in one ear, and affected his mental processes. Montaigne, author of Reeling in Russia (1999), beat Bruce to the coauthor slot, but Bruce soon discovered a story of her own: Williams' version of what happened--in which he claims that no one could have predicted the eruption, a tale he told on television every chance he could during his impressive recovery--is hotly contested by his less-flamboyant peers, who firmly believe that the Galeras deaths of six scientists and three tourists are Williams' fault. There's a tremendous synergy between these two compelling and contrary tales, adventure-tragedies along the lines of Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm. Bruce focuses on events in Colombia, presenting a harrowing description of the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz that killed more than 23,000 people; a crisp chronicle of the 1993 conference that brought dozens of volcano experts to Galeras at Williams' invitation; and her piece de resistance, a thorough explanation of the pioneering work of seismologist Bernard Chouet, whose findings should have prevented the Galeras deaths. Williams takes a wider view, writing passionately about courageous volcano lovers over the centuries and candidly recognizing the heady mix of thrill-seeking and humanitarianism that motivates most volcanologists. Expressing sorrow not guilt, he memorializes his fallen and much-missed comrades. Readers of these page-turners will learn a great deal about volcanoes and about the difference between grandstanding and true heroism. Donna Seaman

Publisher's Weekly Review

Williams, a geology professor at Arizona State University, headed the team on the cone of Colombia's Galeras volcano when it erupted in 1993. Nine people were killed. Severely injured, Williams gained celebrity before he left the hospital, and his roles as expedition leader and media personality generated significant controversy. Williams sustained enough brain damage, he asserts, that he initially believed himself to be the sole survivor, which he promptly told reporters. Actually, several scientists survived, and Williams here acknowledges his slight. Though he insists either because of his injuries or for more nefarious reasons that the others are mistaken about critical elements to the story, his account appears flawed. He alleges that his personal conflict with seismologist Chouet (in 1991, with Williams present, Chouet introduced a method of predicting eruptions) kept him ignorant of Galeras's danger. In fact, Williams submitted a grant proposal to research prediction of eruptions just one month after Chouet's presentation. As to his claim that he merely let reporters state that he alone survived, readers only have to watch the February 12, 1993, broadcast of NBC's Nightly News to hear Williams himself make this pronouncement. The volcanic histories seem a vain attempt to substantiate a porous memoir. Though artfully written (with Montaigne, author of Reeling in Russia), this antagonistic telling so contradicts other survivors' accounts as to seem ludicrous. Illus. not seen by PW. (Apr. 17) Forecast: With a $150,000 marketing campaign, 15-city author tour and a generous floor display, Houghton Mifflin is taking a gamble on a book whose sales will most likely be cut into by its competitor, No Apparent Danger. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In 1993, a Colombian volcano named Galeras erupted, killing six scientists and three tourists inside its rim and severely injuring the expedition's leader, eminent vulcanalogist Williams. Could this tragedy have been avoided? Could the eruption have been predicted? Two new books debate those questions from opposite ends of the spectrum. Williams offers a firsthand account of the disaster, which traumatized him physically and psychologically, while Bruce, a science writer with a master's degree in geology, provides an investigative journalist's perspective. Arguing that there is no method of accurately predicting eruptions, Williams defends his actions, and his book reads as a partial apology to the nine who died and to all who were injured. Bruce, who also discusses a 1985 eruption at another Colombian volcano that left 23,000 people dead (studied in a referreed scientific publication by Williams), writes in a more sensational style, accusing Williams of not being a "team player" (for years the scientist claimed he was the only survivor despite evidence to the contrary) and ignoring a seismologist's research indicating that Galeras was ready to explode. However, both authors agree that Marta Calvache and Patty Mothes, two Colombian geologists who ran into the volcano to rescue people, were heroes at Galeras. Williams acknowledges that he owes his life to Calvache's actions. Perhaps the whole story still is not known, but both books read together make a try. Recommended for academic and larger public libraries. Jean E. Crampon, Science & Engineering Lib., Univ. of Southern California, Los Angeles (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



PrologueMy 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 tell us whether the volcano might erupt. As morning gave way to afternoon, the clouds occasionally dispersed, offering a heartening glimpse of blue sky and revealing Galerass barren, imposing landscape. At the center of the tableau was the cone, 450 feet high, and its steaming crater. Surrounding the cone on three sides were high walls of volcanic rock, known as andesite. Forming an amphitheater 1.3 miles wide and open to the west, these ramparts were a subtle palette of dun, battleship gray, and beige. The top of the escarpment was composed of crumbling columns of hardened lava, the bottom a steep incline of rock and scree. All of it was the remnant of an earlier volcano that had collapsed thousands of years ago, spilling its contents down the mountain in a vast debris field. Occasionally I glimpsed in the west a forested, razorback ridge sloping toward the equatorial lowlands 9,000 feet below. That was the flank of an ancient volcano, which imploded 580,000 years ago after a massive eruption. For miles around, the landscape was defined by these vestiges of earlier Galerases in various stages of decay and erosion. Around one in the afternoon, I stood with four other geologists on the craters lip and gazed into the steaming pit. Like the craters of most explosive volcanoes, this was not a cauldron of lava. It was a moonscape. Some 900 feet wide and 200 feet deep, the mouth of Galeras was a misshapen hole strewn with jagged boulders. Much of that rubble came from a hardened magma cap, or dome, that had been blown to pieces six months earlier in an eruption. At first glance, the crater seemed a sterile place, its colors running a dreary spectrum from dark gray to brown to beige. But on closer inspection the mouth revealed pockets of color -- rust-hued swaths of rock breaking down in the heat and gases of the crater and canary- yellow patches of sulfur that had accumulated next to a gas vent, known as a fumarole. These vents were small fissures where high- pressure gases were released from the magma body beneath the volcano. The gases, which assaulted the nostrils with a melange of sharp, acrid odors right out of the chemistry lab, shot from the fumaroles with a hiss, obscuring the landscape in a swirl of vapors. Galerass fumaroles were relatively quiet that day, emitting a whooshing sound much like that of a steam machine used to clean buildings. When you step down into such a crater, the howl of the wind at 14,000 or 16,000 feet is instantly replaced by the eerie quiet of the earths interior. The exception is when volcanoes are riven by high-pressure, Excerpted from Surviving Galeras by Stanley Williams, Fen Montaigne All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
1 Galerasp. 12
2 Puzzlesp. 31
3 Colleaguesp. 46
4 Inner Firep. 72
5 In the Craterp. 85
6 The Volcano Loversp. 100
7 The Eruptionp. 127
8 Warningsp. 149
9 Rescuep. 161
10 Extinguishing the Sunp. 186
11 Recoveryp. 203
12 Surviving Galerasp. 221
A Note on Sourcesp. 245
Bibliographyp. 248
Acknowledgmentsp. 257
Indexp. 260