Flight into the Inferno

A once in a life times experience!

by © Chris Mason in Montserrat

As it happened, I was by the Soufriere Hills Volcanic Observatory getting the release for the MTU web page, and after some negotiations, was offered a trip in the helicopter to see for myself what was going on up there. I was annoyed that I didn't have my camera with me but when we got to the machine, they were waiting on a welder to repair a broken exhaust clamp, so I was told we had time to get the camera, and, needing no further encouragement off we went.Fixing the Chopper I grabbed three rolls of film, and the camera, and we shot back to the aircraft. There were a few customs officers asking for a ride, but they were told that only members of the team were allowed in it. They seemed kind of bent out of shape when they realised I was going! The unit told me that as I was doing the Web stuff, I was part of the team, after all, I had to know what I was talking about, didn't I.

This was explained this to the pilot, a friendly canadian guy, who loved the idea.

There were five of us, two young police officers attached to the observatory, a scientist, the pilot and I, and we jumped in the helicopter and off we went.

The take off was amazing, the pilot made sure we got a roller coaster ride. We flew from Vue Pointe Hotel, and I got a great picture of the hotel on the way. It was a crystal clear day, and the volcano had no cloud over it, just throwing up little puffs of steam occasionally. We flew to windy hill, where the pilot claimed you could see the spine, but we couldn't. He went over the ridge at windy hill very low, then dropped into the valley, turning my stomach as he did. We continued up to the crater from below, which made for a very dramatic scene as we rose up the outer wall until the dome came into view above the lip. Two spines and castle peak were evident.
windy hill 
As we hovered high above the crater, we could see that there were two domes which were joining together, and there was a spine with a large crack in it The Spine. This spine, I had been informed had grown seven meters overnight. It was an impressive sight, and we were told on the radio that it had began to lean. It could be seen from Tar River where the scientists on foot were taking measurements. It obviously would not be long before it broke off and collapsed!
We made several passes on each side, so that all of us could get photos. I shot three rolls of film quickly, then sat back to enjoy the ride. The pilot decided to give me some special attention as the others has done this every day, but I was a new guy. He turn around and told me he would give me the tour. As the aircraft flew lower I realised that we were going into the crater Crater. I was shown all the vents named for the date they showed up, and he described in detail that when the mud flow happened he was up there at the time and saw a flow of oil-like mud, very hot, gushing from the vent, and speed down the mountain into the Tar River area at 30 miles per hour, fifty feet wide, twenty feet deep. "You wouldn't get out of the way of that", he laughed. Ha ha, I thought.
Another close call had been when a large Phreatic eruption had tossed boulders a mile and a half away into Long ground. "We were up only a half an hour before that happened, close call", he added. I reminded myself to renew my life insurance policy before joining this team so quickly next time. I had seen a shot of a small pyroclastic flow captured the previous day, as a spine broke off and tumbled down the valley at great speed. Not something I wanted to get in the way of!
Small PFSo I got to see all the landslides, vents, domes, spines, and the incredible Dante-like landscape covered in ash and rock, where there had been green foliage scarcely six months ago. Would it ever be the same again, I wondered?

All too soon the ride came to an end, and we sped off to the landing site. I enjoyed the scenery immensely on this exceptionally clear day.
Another shot of crater Next time I hope to bring a video camcorder, after all, getting photos processed in an evacuated town isn't a piece of cake!

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Copyright Chris Mason 1995 Mail the author Chris Mason in Montserrat