Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism.
The Dartmouth
April 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Prof. recounts fatal volcano expedition

Nearly seven years ago, nine members of a group led by visiting Earth Sciences Professor Stanley Williams died on the slopes of a volcano in southwestern Colombia. Today, he sits in his office surrounded by mementos of the tragedy.

Behind Williams' office chair are three poster-size photographs of the volcano, named Galeras. Across from his desk, the melted flashlight and charred notebook that he carried in his backpack on that fateful day sit on the bookcase.

Although he is able to speak freely and almost objectively about his experiences, the memories still bring a measure of pain to Williams.

"It's pretty difficult to talk about without tears... in my eyes," he said. "A lot of my friends got killed, and I miss them."

On Jan. 14, 1993, Williams led a party of 15 volcanologists and tourists up to Galeras's crater. The scientists were assembled for a conference that Williams had organized.

Galeras is one of the most active volcanoes in the world, but it had been quiet for several months at the time. The monitoring station in Pasto, a city of 300,000 located a few miles east of the volcano, reported no signs of trouble.

Standing on the rim of the crater, Williams urged the scientists to leave as soon they had completed their tasks. However, 10 people were still in and around the crater when the ground began to shake.

"Before people could really have much chance to do anything except look up, it exploded, and instantly, nine people were dead. Everybody that was standing next to me, talking to me, was dead," Williams said.

Flying rocks punched a hole into Williams' skull and broke his jaw. As he fled, one leg was broken and another shattered.

Incandescent rocks rained from the sky, igniting his clothes and backpack as he crawled behind a large boulder to protect himself.

Several hours passed before anyone was able to venture near the crater to check for survivors. Once found, Williams was flown to the local hospital where he underwent surgery, but was quickly evacuated to Arizona State University by air ambulance, where the hospital was better equipped to treat him.

Since the eruption, Williams has undergone surgery 16 times. Since he was the victim of "multiple traumas," the doctors were unsure whether he would ever regain his full physical or mental abilities.

But Williams spent only a month in the hospital, and after a year and a half, went back to Galeras.

"Those of us who study volcanoes are inevitably so caught up by the passion of studying volcanoes that we don't give up," he said. "You just have to forget what you are doing is dangerous."

Williams is also passionate about teaching and about raising awareness of the dangers that volcanoes pose to the 500 million people around the world who live in their shadows.

Williams is currently working on a book he hopes will both help educate and interest the public about volcanology. In the book, which should be published in mid-2001, he will tell his experience on Galeras in addition to discussing volcanoes.

Williams performed his undergraduate work at Beloit College and received his Ph.D. from Dartmouth in 1983. He has since taught at Louisiana State University and Arizona State University.