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The Great Mountain
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.