I have often wondered what it would have been like to experience the volcanic eruption on Heimaey of the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) archipelago, which started shortly before 2 am on the night of January 23, 1973, 40 years ago this week.
Imagine waking up to a loud rumble and seeing fountains of lava spurt meters in the air, right outside your window.
As many islanders have recounted, confusion was their first reaction as no one had anticipated a volcanic eruption.
Granted, they had watched Surtsey gradually rise from the ocean in an underwater eruption which lasted four years (1963-1967) and become the archipelago’s southernmost island.
However, the volcano on Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar’s only inhabited island, was considered to be dormant, not having erupted in historic times. Since the eruption, volcanologists’ knowledge of volcanic system has changed significantly.
Kristín Jóhannsdóttir, tourism, culture and marketing manager of Vestmannaeyjar, told me how her family took note of the developments of the Surtsey eruption each day, observing a cloud of ash rising out of the ocean and lava piling up.
What a privilege to have front-row seats of nature in the making.
Kristín was 13 when the eruption on Heimaey started and, as she mentioned in an interview for the latest issue of Iceland Review, her first thought was that a war had broken out, that the Cold War—which was on everyone’s mind those days—had turned hot. She was actually relieved when she realized it was ‘just’ an eruption.
In an interview with Fréttablaðið, Heimaey local Gerður S. Sigurðardóttir said her son had thought the lava was fireworks and that New Year’s Eve was being celebrated again.
Gerður herself had mixed emotions. She felt more angry than scared when she had to evacuate with her family because her house was brand new and they had just moved in.
Her house was among the 400 buried by the eruption. It has now been dug out and will be on display in the exhibition of the Eldheimar (‘Worlds of Fire’) museum, which is under construction and set to open in summer 2014.
A television crew followed Gerður when she reentered her house almost 40 years after leaving it in a hurry and she described how everything was the way she remembered it. Several houses are being excavated as part of the ‘Pompei of the North’ project.
There are many things remarkable about the Heimaey eruption, the first to occur in a town in Iceland. The stoic calmness of the islanders when they packed their belongings and headed for the harbor not knowing whether they would ever return is admirable.
By coincidence, the town’s entire fishing fleet was docked at the harbor because of bad weather the previous days and so the evacuees could be brought to safety.
Only one person died as a consequence of the eruption, due to carbon dioxide poisoning, which is miraculous considering the circumstances.
Not everyone left that fateful night, though, including Kristín’s father. He stayed on with other men, helping save the islanders’ possessions.
And the fishing industry—the community’s livelihood—couldn’t be brought to a halt. Capelin was processed in the local factory in the middle of the eruption.
“It was unforgettable to land capelin … with a raging volcano next to you,” recalled former captain Björn Jónsson of Ásberg RE 22 in an article on liu.is.
Björn’s was among the first outside ships to respond to the emergency call the night of the eruption; his crew was fishing nearby with a view of the islands.
A crew member commented when seeing the glow from Heimaey before the call had been received: “What’s wrong with these Westman Islanders, burning withered grass at this hour.”
When Ásberg reached the harbor, debris hit the sides of the ship. The fissure from which the lava extended stretched all the way down to the harbor.
The potential destruction of the harbor was a major concern given its value to the community. To slow down the lava flow, it was cooled with seawater—6.2 million tons were sprayed on the lava throughout the eruption.
People feared it might last years as the Surtsey eruption and were relieved when it died down, only a few months later, on July 3 in 1973.
Residents were amazingly quick to clear out the ash and rebuild their community; two thirds of Heimaey’s more than 5,200 inhabitants returning in the following months. Today, the population is 1,000 short of what it was in early 1973.
Not all chose to move back. Having an active volcano in your backyard may have been too much for some people. Others had perhaps already made new lives for themselves in Reykjavík or somewhere else.
To me, what the aftermath of the eruption on Heimaey showed more than anything, was the resilience and resourcefulness of the islanders, and the helpfulness and togetherness of the Icelandic community as a whole.
And so this week, as Vestmannaeyingar (Westman Islanders) remember this event that had such a huge impact on their lives, they give thanks to the people who stood by them.
They are documenting the memories of those involved, collecting pictures before and after the eruption, to make sure that it will be remembered for centuries to come, which is of value for the entire world.
In a sense, we are all Vestmannaeyingar. Natural disaster might strike anywhere.
We should all spare a thought for them this week and make plans to come share their experience of Worlds of Fire.
Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir – firstname.lastname@example.org