A Portland Oregonian science reporter investigates two recent volcanic eruptions in Colombia and skewers a scientist/survivor of the latter tragedy for misrepresenting his role and taking credit for the discoveries of others.
Bruce begins on the summit of Mt. Galeras, whose 1993 eruption killed nine people who were exploring the crater at the time: three sightseers and six scientists. But, she declares, it is not possible to understand that tragedy without knowing something of the prior, and far more destructive one that took place in 1985, when Nevado del Ruiz exploded and sent a surging river of mud 60 to 100 feet high through the towns of Chinchiná and Armero, killing more than 23,000 people. Bruce tells the story of that disaster in great and grim detail, with an interruption for some geological history of Colombia, then returns to Galeras and describes some of its prior eruptions. She also introduces seismologist Bernard Chouet, one of the heroes of this tale, whose pathfinding discoveries of “long-period events” have proved the most accurate predictors of eruptions. And we meet the principal villain, Stanley Williams, a vainglorious chemist specializing in volcanic emissions. Bruce cites other volcanologists who disdain Williams’s belief that the chemical composition of volcanic gases has predictive value, then chronicles the January 1993 scientific conference near Galeras and the fateful expedition into the crater led by Williams, whom the author blames for insufficient safety precautions and for unsavory self-aggrandizement after the incident. (Williams repeatedly told representatives of the news media—whom he contacted aggressively—that he had been the only survivor. For his own version of the story, see p. 248.) Bruce portrays Williams as unrepentant and academically dishonest—serious charges, well documented. By contrast, two heroic scientists, Patty Mothes and Marta Calvache, risked their lives, descending into the smoking crater to look for survivors. The author includes much sanguinary detail of wounds and carnage (visible brain matter and cooked flesh) and sometimes permits a hackneyed phrase to impede her otherwise swift narrative (e.g., “Seconds seemed like hours”).
Solid research underlies a tragic story with explosive implications. (8 pages b&w photographs, not seen)