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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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In 1985 in Columbia, more than 23,000 people died due to the government's failure to take seriously scientists' warnings about an imminent volcanic eruption at Nevado del Ruiz. In 1993, at Volcán Galeras, the death toll was smaller but no less tragic: despite seismic data that foretold possible disaster, an expedition of international scientists proceeded


In 1985 in Columbia, more than 23,000 people died due to the government's failure to take seriously scientists' warnings about an imminent volcanic eruption at Nevado del Ruiz. In 1993, at Volcán Galeras, the death toll was smaller but no less tragic: despite seismic data that foretold possible disaster, an expedition of international scientists proceeded into the volcano. Two hours later, nine people were dead.

Expertly detailing the turbulent history of Colombia, Victoria Bruce links together the stories of the heroes, villains, survivors, and victims of these two events. No Apparent Danger is a spellbinding account of clashing cultures and the life-and-death consequences of scientific arrogance.

Editorial Reviews

This compelling blow-by-blow account of two related volcano tragedies by science journalist Victoria Bruce is the result of extensive research and interviews. The book relates the harrowing confluence of events that led to the death of 23,000 people when an entire village was engulfed in a mud flow and the later deaths of scientists studying Galeras.
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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Read an Excerpt

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.

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)

Meet the Author

Victoria Bruce holds a master's degree in geology from the University of California at Riverside. A former science writer for NASA and science reporter for the Portland Oregonian, she splits her time between Annapolis and Miami Beach.

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No Apparent Danger: The True Story of Volcanic Disaster at Galeras and Nevado del Ruiz 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
No Apparent Danger is a stunning example of careful and diligent attention to details of the horrible human suffering due to natural disasters in Colombia in the last decade and a half. It explains the events through the words both published and from interviews,of dozens of people who were involved . The book reads in a wonderful, descriptive way. From the earnest attempts of the scientsts/engineers to understand the signals from Nevado Del Ruiz¿to the flight from Arbolito during the eruption¿to the devastation of Armero, the reader is left profoundly saddened. The idea that in 1985, lack and hinderance of scientific support from the government of Colombia was responsible for many thousands of people to die is apalling. Strong people of Colombia are introduced to the reader who were coffee growers, engineers, and scientists all working to understand these disasters and to form plans and procedures needed to prevent loss of life and property. These people beome real in the book because of the description of their lives, personalities, work, and in some cases, their heroism. The story of the explosion of Galeras is rich in detail because of the view of people who witnessed it from different places. The confusion in the city of Pasto, the anxiety and concern of the people hiking the flanks of the mountain. The agony of death and injury in the volcano. The search and rescue for surviors. And the almost comical event where a scientist, TV cameraman, and reporter ended in a heap at the summit. I am moved by this book, which has described all of this and much more. I am pleased to know of strong, intellegent, and caring people who acted in brave ways in Colombia. I am pleased to read about the women who are dedicated scientists in Colombia and I salute the two women who by example, started the rescue.
Superior_Shores More than 1 year ago
Author Victoria Bruce takes you from one volcano to another linking the two explosions together for an unbeliveable conclusion. May this book "set the record straight"! Very well done despite a necessary slightly slow start.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I can't add anything not already said. However, Ms. Bruce seems to look for every opportunity to besmirch the religious community for their supposed failure. Let's face it, the real failure was another scientist.
Guest More than 1 year ago
No Apparent Danger is beautifully written and excruciatingly honest. Ms. Bruce¿s thorough documentation of events does not sugar coat the facts, politics, or egos of the players involved in both tragedies. Her thorough research of the facts are brutally honest and objectively exposes the conflict of an economically troubled country, complicated politics, horrendous egos and the lack of resources available to the young Columbian scientists who are desperately trying to understand the dangers and complexities of awakening volcanoes. Ms. Bruce¿s ability to clearly communicate the science of geology and volcanology to a lay reader is a talent to be admired. She simplifies the science and facts about volcanoes so clearly it is truly baffling as to why the warning signals of both active volcanoes were ignored causing such horrific tragedies. The complete neglect of safety procedures in both eruptions is absolutely criminal. It¿s clear that Ms. Bruce¿s credentials as a journalist, geologist and volcanologist have given her the ability to honestly and concisely report the tragedies, which should have never occurred. She exposes the ¿real danger¿ involved in science ¿ the human ego! This is a must read! You will not want to stop until you¿ve reached the last page!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
The story is amazing. I want to marry Marta, what a woman. It is amazing how different people react during chaotic, life threatening situations. The life drama that unfolded that day was enough to put alot of people into mental shock. How she reacted, putting her life on the line to save the others was nothing short of heroic. Ignorance by the scientist in charge of the expedition would have been acceptable, but the arrogance that cost those people their lives is unacceptable. The blatent disreguard for saftey, and the laughing & teasing of those who wore saftey gear is something a second grade child would do. And the lies that followed to cover up the fact that he ignored all the basic warning signs (For the second time! Second volcano)is just unforgiveable. After telling those streaming tales (lies) about what happened that day. I don't even understand how anyone could take anything else reported by him to be true? Anyhow, GREAT book! Great human drama. Sometimes life is more amazing than fiction. The research that it took to make this book happen must have been a book in itself. No Apparent Danger is very well written & researched, and very much enjoyed.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed the book and after having read it, I feel much better informed about these two Colombian volcanoes. I was prepared for Nevado del Ruiz, the political mañanaism, the bureaucratic bungling, and the appalling loss of life at Amero. This tragic event is covered in many popular geology texts; in Environmental Geology, Eight Edition, E. A. Keller notes that the Amero town site was covered with mud during the 1845 eruption and that a US Geological Survey volcanic hazards map showing the mudflow-prone area at Amero was available a month prior to the 1985 eruption. I was not prepared for the well-documented, not-in-dispute story of a reckless, academic researcher whose ego and compulsive drive for fame and stardom displaced common sense and any concern for the welfare of others. His slippery evasion of responsibility for the Galeras fiasco and his highly-visible, fictitious accounts of the circumstances surrounding the event make one wonder whether he 'massaged' or made up his scientific research results as well. The specter of a reckless fame-seeker masquerading as a cutting edge, field researcher was very troubling. The book raises other pertinent issues as well. Should big grant money be awarded to researchers who send students off alone to foreign countries. Animal researchers must pledge humane treatment for their experimental animals. Maybe the National Science Foundation should include a statement guaranteeing proper preparation and training before sending lone graduate students into dangerous countries to do field work in dangerous areas and to collect samples in hazardous environments. Ms. Bruce takes on another tough, fundamental issue deeply embedded in natural hazard mitigation. Hi-tech gurus, well-versed in the latest instrumentation and gadgetry may have little training as 'diplomats' or 'societal managers' and, the population at greatest risk may not perceive the danger nor want protection. People profoundly ignorant of modern science and technology will find many reasons, rational and otherwise, to disregard warnings and directives issued by well-meaning foreigners and distant national politicians whose sudden interest in local matters contrasts starkly with years of disinterest and neglect. I liked the book. The author has opened a whole, new universe, academic research and public policy, to the time-honored, American writer's tradition of muckraking! I recommend the book to all readers interested in the earth sciences and in formulating sound environmental policies. The book exposes the good, the bad, and the ugly of integrating the seething mixture of scientific research findings, technological advances, and public education into effective and progressive hazard mitigation policies. Geologists will love the book; chemists will be lukewarm; and anarchists, OSHA-haters, and compassionate libertarians will not find the book interesting nor to their liking.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was attracted to this book by having read Volcano Cowboys, which portrays the story of how volcanologists are learning how to predict eruptions and avoid loss of life. As fascinating as that book was, No Apparent Danger really riveted me. Rather than treating the subject as being about science and public policy, No Apparent Danger looks at the 1985 eruption of Nevado del Ruiz and the 1993 eruption of Galeras in Colombia from the perspective of Colombians and others who were present. This magnification of the individual human element turned the story into a gripping, page-turning tour de force of scientific learning for the reader. Whether or not you want to learn some geology about volcanoes, you will be glad you read this book. I graded the book down one star for overstating the clarity with which Dr. Chouet's theory of long-period events being helpful for predicting eruptions was understood and accepted in 1993. As a result, I think Ms. Bruce searches just a little too hard for villains in her role as journalistic prosecutor of the scientific community. The book contains some very clear background about the two volcanoes, both as geological phenomena and for the cultural and historical aspects of the places where they are found. These are killer volcanoes, and need careful watching. 'The two volcanoes are inextricably linked -- by geology, by legend, and by scientific failing.' But the book's best parts focus around those moments when the eruptions are imminent, are taking place, escape is occuring, and life saving efforts begin. Ms. Bruce writes with a sure hand, building from fascinating, ironical recollections by eyewitnesses, both ordinary people and scientists. For example, just as Galeras was erupting, a journalist on the volcano was doing a video tape asking one of the scientists when the volcano would next erupt. He replied that he did not know. It could be any time. Both eruptions appear to have contained missed opportunities to save lives. With Nevado del Ruiz, the potential danger was that the glacier on top of the volcano would melt from an eruption, creating a mud slide. In two earlier eruptions (1595 and 1845), the place where 30,000 people lived, the town of Amero, had been totally covered with mud from such a melt. One scientist warned that this could happen again. Another said not to worry. No evacuation plans were made, although there was a potential to have two hours of warning. 23,000 people died. You will long remember the stories of what it was like to be overtaken by a tidal wave of mud from survivors. The fatal eruption at Galeras in 1993 was, by comparison, a mere cough. Those killed or injured were people on top of the volcano who were hit by flying rocks. The amount of material ejected was small compared to Mount St. Helens. If the top of the volcano had been closed that day, no one would have been hurt. Drawing on a large number of eyewitness accounts, Ms. Bruce makes a persuasive case for negligent leadership by Professor Stanley Williams, who was the most senior academic on hand at the time. For example, most people did not have hard hats on. The death and injury toll would have been smaller if they had been in use. It was standard practice by the U.S. Geological Survey to wear hard hats at the time. The aftermath of the Galeras eruption contains one of those juicy stories about academic disputes that delight many nonacademicians. Having apparently been uninterested in the long-period event method of predicting eruptions first developed by Dr. Chouet, Professor Williams soon supported an article by one of his graduate students in Nature claiming to have developed the field based on the Galeras eruption. In a fine irony, Nature had asked Dr. Chouet to be a reviewer of this article. Dr. Chouet was preparing to publish in Nature as well. The Arizona State article caused his proposed paper to be watered down. Clearly, predicting volcanic eruptions is very difficult