No Apparent Danger: The True Story of Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado del Ruiz

No Apparent Danger: The True Story of Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado del Ruiz

4.5 9
by Victoria Bruce

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"On January 14, 1993, a team of scientists descended into the crater of Galeras, a restless Andean volcano in southern Colombia, for a day of field research. As the group slowly moved across the rocky moonscape of the caldera near the heart of the volcano, Galeras erupted, its crater exploding in a barrage of burning rocks and glowing shrapnel. Nine men died instantly… See more details below


"On January 14, 1993, a team of scientists descended into the crater of Galeras, a restless Andean volcano in southern Colombia, for a day of field research. As the group slowly moved across the rocky moonscape of the caldera near the heart of the volcano, Galeras erupted, its crater exploding in a barrage of burning rocks and glowing shrapnel. Nine men died instantly, their bodies torn apart by the blast." "Detailing the turbulent history of Columbia and the geology of its snow-peaked volcanoes, Victoria Bruce weaves together the stories of the heroes, victims, survivors, and bystanders, evoking what it means to live in the shadow of a volcano, a hair's-breadth away from unthinkable natural calamity, and shows how clashing cultures and scientific arrogance resulted in tragic and unnecessary loss of life."--BOOK JACKET.

Editorial Reviews

Discover Magazine
Harrowing...offers rich insight into the untidy workings of volcanologists and science in general.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The fight currently raging within the volcanological community, sketched by the discrepancies between Bruce's work and Stanley Williams and Fen Montaigne's Surviving Galeras (reviewed below), concerns what is known about predicting eruptions, and particularly about Galeras when it blew, and why nine people died in that eruption (see PW, Book News, Feb. 12). In Bruce's harrowing depiction of the 1985 Nevado del Ruiz eruption, which killed 23,000 people, scientists and survivors describe bureaucratic foolishness, scientific discovery and human strife. In her presentation of the 1993 eruption of Galeras, another Colombian volcano, numerous interviews illuminate further human folly, and particularly Williams's pariah status among geologists. Seismologist Bernard Chouet's testimony discredits Williams's assertion that there was no warning of the eruption. Previously, Chouet had successfully predicted two eruptions from seismographic patterns also visible when Galeras erupted. While Williams says this was never brought to his attention, Bruce notes that leading a team into an active volcano without checking available data hardly seems responsible scientific practice. Chouet claims he presented his prediction technique, with Williams present, in 1991. Further, expedition members contend that, despite Galeras's signs of activity, Williams ignored advice to shorten the visit. One survivor says Williams took no safety precautions and mocked his colleagues who wore hard hats. Scientist and journalist Bruce traces the fascinating recent history of Colombian volcanoes and the scientific community's politics, wherein intellectual property generates fame and near-fortune, in an insightful, spellbinding account. Photos and illus. (Apr. 2) Forecast: Bruce's 11-city tour, participation in Columbia University's Earth Science Colloquium in March and the much-publicized Galeras debacle promise big sales. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
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 Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
No Apparent Danger is the story of volcanic disaster at Galeras and Nevado del Ruiz and tells of a team of scientists who died during a research expedition, and of the woman who experienced two volcanic disasters in less than a decade of study. Scientific tragedy and study risks are detailed in an involving survey.
Kirkus Reviews
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 theonly 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.

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HarperCollins Publishers
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6.12(w) x 9.25(h) x 0.89(d)

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Chapter One

The Great Mountain

Arbolito, Columbia:
November 13, 1985

Bernando Salazar and Fernando Gil, two young scientists working for the regional electric company, hiked up the steep ridge above the small farming village of Arbolito, Colombia. Above them, hidden by clouds, rose the sweeping summit of Nevado del Ruiz, a 17,454-foot ice-capped mountain and the highest active volcano in Colombia. Nestled within the northernmost reaches of the Andean Cordillera, the beautiful, tranquil Nevado del Ruiz symbolized security and protection to the people of the region.

Sleeping peacefully for as long as anyone could remember, the volcano had become restless during the previous year. The gentle rumblings and the tall column of steam flowing from its crater had frightened farmers living close to the mountain's flanks and unsettled coffee growers, politicians, and scientists in the cities below, but since there had been no sizable eruption, many people in the surrounding regions stopped taking the volcano seriously. "The great mountain considers us family," the locals said. "The volcano may get a little riled up, but it would never hurt its own."

Things had changed somewhat just two months before. On September 11, 1985, Nevado del Ruiz erupted. A thin coat of ash rained onto Manizales, the capital city of the western state of Caldas. Frightened residents swept ash from the narrow streets of their city and spoke about their mountain with the sort of concern normally reserved for an admired but volatile family matriarch.

The prosperous metropolitan center of Manizales sat high on a ridge, andscientists had assured residents that the city was not likely to be hurt by the volcano. What did worry scientists were the many thousands who lived in the valleys and low-lying plains surrounding Nevado del Ruiz. Yet even with such a specific threat, there was no money from the federal government to monitor the volcano. The data collected by scientists were slow to be analyzed or, worse yet, ignored altogether, making it almost impossible to accurately predict an eruption and take action before it was too late.

After the September eruption, however, Bernardo Salazar, a quiet, clean-cut civil engineer, had received a green light to add one more member to the team that had been working on Nevado del Ruiz since the beginning of the year. Salazar approached Fernando Gil, a bearded man with a booming laugh and a fellow alumnus of the University of Caldas.

"I was working as a civil engineer when Bernardo called to ask if I wanted to work on the volcano. I told him yes, of course I did," Gil says.

As Salazar explained to Gil by phone just days after the September eruption, they would visit all six of the seismic monitoring stations scattered around the volcano every day, by car and by foot, and gather the seismograph data. Gil would live with Salazar in Arbolito, just 3 miles northwest of the volcano's summit. They would start before dawn, Salazar explained, because the task of changing all the seismographs took the entire day. The roads that traveled around Nevado del Ruiz were cobbled with angular volcanic rocks or laid-in dirt and mud and carved by gullies. To get the broadest data possible, the seismic stations were scattered great distances over the volcano's massive cone.

The two scientists would then evaluate each of the carbon-coated records, cataloging the time and the duration of small scribbles that appeared on the seismographs. And every other week, Salazar would make the two-hour drive down the mountain and deliver the seismographs to the team's unofficial headquarters on the eleventh floor of the Banco Cafetero building in downtown Manizales. In the office space, which the scientists referred to as Piso Once (literally, the "eleventh floor"), Marta Calvache, a young geologist, and Nestor García, a chemical engineer, would then send the seismographs to Bogotá to be analyzed by government scientists from the National Institute of Geology and Mines.

That was the official routine -- though, in fact, no results had come back to Piso Once for over two months. Even more discouraging, the hydroelectric company that had loaned Salazar the seismograph drums wanted their equipment back to use on other projects. Salazar felt like a year of hard work was quickly coming to an unsuccessful end.

Gil arrived in Arbolito just a week after receiving Salazar's invitation. He shared a two-room house with Salazar and two other housemates, Rafael Gonzales and Juan Duarte, technicians responsible for keeping the equipment working. The view from the front yard was the massive summit of Nevado del Ruiz, whose magnificent peak was often shrouded in thick clouds. When the clouds lifted, glaciers covering the top of the mountain looked like a menacing row of jagged shark's teeth. The ice, ribbed with gaping, sinuous crevasses, flowed from the volcano's broad summit down into steep valleys and ended in ominous pointed cusps. "It was amazingly beautiful, and I felt so fortunate," Gil says.

The year was 1985. just over five years before, the tremendous eruption of Mount Saint Helens in Washington State rocked the scientific community. There were only a handful of scientists in the world who could accurately interpret seismic signals from an active volcano, and those specialists hadn't come to Nevado del Ruiz. "We were civil engineers and knew virtually nothing about volcanoes," says Gil. Despite their best intentions, Salazar and Gil had no idea how to interpret the small scribbles they were looking at, night after night, under the poor light of a single lamp in the cinder-block house...

No Apparent Danger. Copyright © by Victoria Bruce. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

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What People are saying about this

Sebastian Junger
This is the finest sort of journalism -- ferociously well researched and impossible to put down. Every human tragedy should be treated with such thoroughness and respect.
— (Sebastian Junger, author of The Perfect Storm)
Todd Balf
A breathtaking story of scientific hubris and unimaginable tragedy. Expertly written and unflinchingly reported, Victoria Bruce gives us a true and terrifying inside look at two of the most disastrous -- and mishandled -- volcano crises of modern times. Nature, as the apocalyptic eruptions at Colombia's Nevado del Ruiz and Galeras surely show, has an unerring ability to make humans pay for their nonsense. If -- no, when -- one of America's long overdue volcanoes finally blows you'll want to hope everyone has read this book and read it well.
— (Todd Balf, author of The Last River: The Tragic Race for Shangri-La)

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