Volcanic eruption in Heimaey 1973

Between 2:00 and 2:30 a.m. on the 23rd of January 1973 I woke up because of a strange thundering noise. When I looked out of the window I saw a volcanic eruption close to my home. It was a very dramatic and beautiful sight. At that time I was living on the island of Heimaey, in the Vestmannaeyjar (e. Westmans Islands) archipelago, about 10 km off the south coast of Iceland.

First an eruption fissure, about 1,500 m long, opened seawards only about 200 – 300 meters from the easternmost part of the town. As usual for a fissure eruption the crater row developed into a single active crater in the middle of the rift. Later the new mountain was named Eldfell, which means “Fire Mountain” in English.

The town was a prosperous fishing village. Because of a big storm the previous day, the whole of the fishing boat fleet of the town lay in harbor. I went with my parents down to the harbor where people were boarding the boats heading for the mainland of Iceland. Most of the 5,300 inhabitants went with the boats, hospital patients were taken by air and about 200-300 key personnel engaged in essential services stayed on the island. People had to abandon their homes without knowing whether they would ever see them again. Very few had managed to take anything with them and everybody faced a very unknown future.

The evacuation started just before 3 a.m and took about 6 hours. It went very smoothly and I never noticed any panic or other problems. The Icelandic State Civil Defense Organization had a contingency evacuation plan ready for just such a disaster.

Instruction in Icelandic to the people in Vestmannaeyjar from the civil defense.
Instruction in Icelandic to the people in Vestmannaeyjar from the civil defense.

We sailed to Þorlákshöfn, on the mainland of Iceland, and from there we were transported to Reykjavík, which is the capital of Iceland, with it’s city busses and other vehicles. When we arrived the Red Cross organized accommodations for those who needed it.

Shortly after the eruption started I went back to the island with my father to salvage properties from our home and my parents company. There were also many others who went there for salvaging, including other inhabitants and voluntary rescue team members. We sailed with a passenger ship and just before we entered the harbor in the darkness, everybody went silent. We sailed through a narrow path between a high cliff and glowing lava entering the ocean, so red smoke rose. I found it humbling and scaring to be so close to the creation of new land by the Great Architect of the Universe.

Though the inhabitants were mostly salvaging their own properties, we also helped each others. One day we took part in salvaging of valuables and personal items from other houses because the lava was starting to move faster and we had to work very fast before the houses went under the lava.

The harbor was of priceless value to the town that depended on fishing and fish processing. Therefore great emphasize was put on saving the harbor from blockage or filling by lava. This was mostly done by pumping enormous amount of sea water onto the edge of the lava to diverting the lava flow. For water cooling to be effective, water had to penetrate down into the lava through cracks and joints that form during the initial cooling period. About 6 million m3 of sea water, containing about 220,000 tons of salt, was pumped onto the lava.

Beside lava there were many other dangers there. Because of tephra falling over the town, we had to wear steal helmets and sometimes run for shelter. Sometimes glowing tephra broke it’s way through roofs and windows and thus setting the houses on fire. This risk was reduced by covering the windows, facing the volcano, with corrugated iron sheeting and steel plating. Many houses collapsed under great weight of tephra, which increased daily. To try to prevent this, tephra was swept of the roofs. The roofs were also strengthened by placing props and rafters under them.

The ash had a sandblasting effect on painted surfaces of vehicles. Motors not protected by air cleaners and filters, particularly gear boxes, required frequent maintenance.

We could not sleep in the night because of an invisible danger. An unexpected hazard was noticed after the eruption began when surprisingly high concentration of poisonous gases were found in low areas, both inside buildings and also outside during calm weather. Therefore we had living candles on the floor and if the fire died it indicated gas poisoning so we had to get higher up in the house. So when we had to rest from packing, we just laid in bed and watched the fire. Because the gas was heavy it could lay on the floor and one time, when I bent down, I breathe in the gas which felt like a kick in the head. For a few hours I had a very bad headache and dizziness. Several people became sick because of breathing this gas and one  died  when he broke into my parent pharmacy, while me and my father were in Reykjavik to empty containers.  We then went back to continue the work.

With all those dangers to worry about, I am glad that I did not know that consideration was given to throw a bomb from an aircraft on the east side of the volcano to create a channel for the lava to the sea. It was not done because the risks of missing the target were too great!

On 3 July 1973 the towns Civil Defense Authority formally announced that the eruption was over. Already before the eruption came to an end, work began on excavating the town and clearing away ash and debris, with shovels and bulldozers. I was hired to take part in this work. The town was rebuilt in an astonishingly short time and has become a popular destination for travelers.

Because photographing was my main hobby, when the eruption started, I always had my camera with me. The first three photographs in part I of the slide show are probably the first ones taken of the eruption. They are a bit shaken because I forgot my tripod when I escaped from my home!