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Volcanologist was caught off-guard by eruption

Sunday, August 27, 2000

By Byron Spice, Science Editor, Post-Gazette

As molten rocks the size of softballs rained down around him, geologist Michael Ramsey concentrated on advice he had heard from a survivor of a volcanic eruption seven years before.

Drop down. Protect your head.

Michael Ramsey, a geologist from the University of Pittsburgh. (Bill Wade, Post-Gazette) 

Falling face down on a ridge that shielded him from the direct blast of the 12,000-foot volcano in Indonesia, the 33-year-old volcanologist from the University of Pittsburgh held his camera bag across the back of his head and tried to flick away the hot, glassy pebbles that pelted him and melted into his parka.

The July 26 eruption of the Semeru volcano in eastern Java had caught Ramsey and a small group of fellow volcanologists by surprise. It lasted just 40 or 45 seconds and was by most standards a minor volcanic event, little more than a hissy fit of Nature. Yet when Ramsey stood and surveyed the aftermath, he was aghast at the power Semeru had just displayed.

    Exploring volcanoes is a deadly business

Two Indonesian colleagues lay dead. An American scientist was unconscious, bleeding and seriously burned. Ramsey and another American were both injured.

And, as they learned as they made their way off the mountain, this was only the beginning of their ordeal.

Ramsey, who joined Pitt's geology and planetary science department only three months ago, normally views volcanoes from the safety of his office. A specialist in remote sensing, he is part of a scientific team trying to monitor volcanoes by using a camera aboard Terra, a satellite launched last December as part of NASA's Earth Observing System.

But visiting the sites of active volcanoes -- assessing what might be detectable from space and what might not -- is also part of his job. To date, he's been to about a dozen of them.

His presence atop Semeru, the tallest mountain on Java, was largely a matter of happenstance, however. He had presented a paper to the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior, which had its annual assembly in mid-July in Bali, just one island over from Java. Afterward, two scientists from the Smithsonian Institution's Global Volcanism Program, Paul Kimberly and Lee Siebert, were to accompany a team from the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia on a trip up Semeru and Ramsey was invited along.

  Michael Ramsey shot this photo of a steam and ash cloud from Semeru the day before the volcano erupted, killing 2.
Volcanoes are a major concern in Indonesia, an island nation where 216 million people inhabit a land area about three times the size of Texas. There are so many active volcanoes -- more than 130 -- that the exact number isn't known. The nation has had some of the largest, deadliest eruptions in history: Tambora in 1815, leaving 92,000 dead, and Krakatau in 1883, with 36,000 dead.

The remote sensing work done by Ramsey is a tool that scientists hope will enable them to better understand volcanoes, perhaps allowing them to spot warning signs of dangerous eruptions in time to alert surrounding populations.

At Mt. Semeru, the American scientists were accompanying Volcanological Survey staff members on a routine, weekly monitoring tour.

Semeru has erupted at least 55 times since 1818, sometimes producing lava flows, pyroclastic flows -- swiftly moving, deadly clouds of hot gas and rock fragments -- and mudflows that have killed hundreds of people over the years.

For several decades, however, Semeru has been a "popper," sending up 1,000-foot plumes of steam and ash every 20 minutes or so. Molten magma isn't visible from the crater, but water seeps down through the crust of rocks and ash at the bottom of the crater until it hits hot rock. The water flashes to steam, building up pressure under the crust until an explosion occurs.

"It's just this big pit and every so often it blows," Ramsey said. A national park surrounds the mountain and, despite the dangers, the crater has become a popular hiking destination.

On July 25, Ramsey and the rest of the group drove to a small village near the mountain and hiked 12 to 13 miles into the park, setting up camp about 1,000 feet above the tree line and 1,000 feet below the summit.

They rose at 2 a.m. the next day to begin their climb, planning to reach the crater by dawn, take some photos, make some measurements, and, after a couple of hours, make their way back to camp. Ramsey, a former Grand Canyon river guide with training in field medicine, usually carries a first aid kit, but he tossed it back in his tent before leaving, figuring he could do without the extra 2 pounds on the short trek.

Then he thought better of it and retrieved the kit.

About 20 people were at the summit at sunrise, including Ramsey, the two Smithsonian volcanologists, an Israeli student and four scientists from the Indonesian agency, as well as a couple of porters and a Dutch tourist.

The crater at the top is inactive; the steam-and-ash explosions occur in a smaller crater that is about 200 to 300 feet below the summit and connected to the summit by a curved ridge. After watching three or four eruptions, the group decided to venture down the ridge to get a closer view. The summit was cloudy that morning and the fog became thicker as they reached the active crater.

Ramsey, Kimberly and the Dutch hiker got discouraged and headed back up the ridge. About halfway up, the clouds rapidly dissipated. Someone at the crater called out a good-natured taunt to the departing trio: "Thanks for leaving, guys -- now we've got a clear shot."

Kimberly took the hint and began running back to the crater, perhaps 100 feet away.

Ramsey stayed in place fiddling with the telephoto lens on his camera. He felt a tremor beneath his feet.

"That's when I got a little nervous because we hadn't felt that before."

That low vibrational motion most likely was caused by fresh magma pushing up through the rock, cracking it. Unlike the usual steam-and-ash eruptions, which are caused by water seeping down from above, this movement originated deep within the volcano, maybe a mile beneath the volcanologists' feet. Perhaps a new batch of gas-rich magma had flowed into the chamber below Semeru; when it mixed with the existing magma, its gas would decompress and begin rising like bubbles in a glass of champagne.

The sudden dissipation of the fog, Ramsey realized later, may have been caused by the heat of the hot magma as it pushed to the surface.

But none of that was evident before it was too late. Looking back toward the crater through his camera, Ramsey saw a wall of rock and ash shoot straight up toward the group gathered at the crater.

"I immediately knew we were in big trouble," Ramsey said. The Dutch hiker started to scream. Ramsey shoved him toward a rock outcrop about 20 feet away down the side of the ridge opposite the crater.

Rocks were starting to fall. The rocks -- molten when they hit the air -- were nearly 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit, and Ramsey knew it was important to remain conscious so that he could extricate himself from any scalding masses that struck him. He threw himself to the ground and positioned his camera bag behind his head. Small gobs of glassy stone pelted him, sticking to his clothes until he could flick them off. Something big hit the camera bag, knocking it off his head and out of his hands.

Something hit his left boot, melting all its rivets.

And within 40 or 45 seconds -- 60 seconds at most -- it was over. A minute later, Ramsey clambered to his feet. Ten feet away lay a smoldering rock the size of a basketball. He found his camera case, which was melted in one corner.

"That's when I started hearing the screaming and wailing," he said.

Kimberly had been knocked unconscious. Unable to protect himself from the nearly molten projectiles, he suffered third-degree burns to his arms and legs.

Making his way to the crater's edge, Ramsey found the two senior Indonesian volcanologists, who had been caught in the direct blast of the eruption. He barely knew them. The man he knew as Willie, named Asep Wildan, and his colleague, named Mukti, were both dead, killed instantly from blows to their heads.

Amit Mushkin, the Israeli student, was largely unscathed, but Siebert, the other Smithsonian scientist, was bleeding from his head and had a large chunk of skin missing between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.

Ramsey and the other survivors helped get Kimberly to his feet and back to the summit, where two other Indonesian scientists had remained. The Indonesians radioed for help.

Within a half-hour, Kimberly became coherent again and Ramsey assessed his injuries. He had a broken arm and a smashed hand. His pants had burned off and he had third-degree burns on the tops of both thighs. He was bleeding from a rip in the upper left arm of his jacket; closer inspection showed a hole almost the size of a half dollar that continued down to his fractured collarbone.

"I wanted to get him off the summit," Ramsey said, so they headed down the mountain, past their tents to a base camp 2,000 feet below the summit, where there was a small hut and room for a helicopter to land.

As they waited to be evacuated, Ramsey took out two suture kits from the first aid kit he had almost left behind and began to stitch up the gaping wound on Kimberly's shoulder.

"I had learned to do sutures on a big slab of roast beef," he said, but had never done it on a live human being before. "About halfway through, Paul said, 'Are you going to begin soon?' so I guess I wasn't too bad."

By 5 p.m., it was obvious that no helicopter would be coming that day. "None of us got much sleep that night," Ramsey said.

The next morning, word came that a helicopter rescue had been approved, but that clouds and rain would make it impossible.

So villagers, who had hiked up with supplies through the night, constructed a gurney for Kimberly and suspended it by ropes to a single pole supported on the shoulders of two men. The village men were small, skinny and usually barefoot, but they expertly moved Kimberly down the hill, with replacements taking over as each set of porters tired.

Ramsey, his left foot swollen from the impact of the flying rock, limped along in the procession, a tree limb serving as a makeshift crutch. Siebert, who had worked in Indonesia before, took the lead in communicating with the Indonesians and Mushkin aided with Kimberly's transport.

"All of us were kind of the walking wounded," Ramsey recalled, "so we didn't have much energy."

It was about 9:30 p.m. on July 27 before they arrived in the trailhead village of Ranupane, where Kimberly, Siebert, Ramsey and Mushkin piled into an ambulance headed for the next major city, Lumajong. When they arrived about 2:30 a.m., almost two days after the eruption, 30 or 40 reporters greeted them.

Siebert and Kimberly were flown to a hospital in Singapore. Siebert, now back at work at the National Museum of Natural History, declined to be interviewed for this story, explaining, "This tragedy is still much too close at hand for me." Randall Kremer, spokesman for the museum in Washington, D.C., said Kimberly continues to undergo treatment for his burns and is expected to make a full recovery.

Ramsey said doctors in Lumajong found nothing wrong with his bruised foot, though it still bothers him a month later. Covered in bruises, he returned with Mushkin to Semeru to gather up the camping gear. Ramsey then returned to the United States.

Hindsight is 20/20 and Ramsey wishes he and the others hadn't made their trek to Semeru. But he also knows it's not the last time he will visit a volcano.

"You really need to be out there," he said. "It's not enough to look at satellite images on a computer screen."

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