An expertly narrated account of natural mayhem, in the tradition of Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm.
In 1993 Williams (Geosciences/Arizona State Univ.) was leading a field trip on the slopes of the Colombian volcano Galeras when it erupted, killing most of his colleagues and leaving Williams with a fractured skull, burns, broken bones, and a nearly severed leg. Teaming up here with Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Montaigne (Reeling in Russia, 1998), Williams recounts the ordeal and its long aftermath in a narrative full of complex details on the nature of this fiery planet—and full of blood and gore to boot. It’s a saw among magazine editors that it is impossible to write interestingly about geology, but Williams and Montaigne do a fine job of detailing how and why volcanoes form and how volcanologists go about the business of predicting when one of the world’s 1,500-odd volcanoes is going to blow—work, they note, that has seen enormous technical advances in just the last few years (although, Williams comments, “the best way to understand a volcano is still, in my opinion, to climb it”). Technical advances aside, however, nature’s capriciousness resists reliable forecasting. Thus, although Williams knew Galeras perhaps as well as did any geologist alive (or dead), he could not foresee the eruption, and his party was consequently unprepared for the worst-case scenario that in fact occurred; as one of the surviving members later put it, “We should have taken better precautions. We were all too cavalier.” His blamelessness notwithstanding, Williams has been haunted ever since by the eruption. As he writes, for eight years “being the survivor has become an integral part of my identity”—a part, he adds, that he means to exorcise by writing this book.
Frightening and fascinating.