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COLUMN ONE : In Pursuit of Deadly Volcanoes : Three who died in Japan's eruption belonged to an elite group engaged in daredevil research considered among the most glamorous and dangerous in science.



On the day Japan's Mt. Unzen claimed his life, 33-year-old scientist Harry Glicken was chasing an obsession.


It began when he was a teen-ager growing up in Los Angeles, sustained him through college and led him to the crests of some of the world's most enchanting and deadly mountains, including Washington state's Mt. St. Helens, where he narrowly escaped death.


"Harry wanted to study volcanoes," his sister said. "If there was an epitaph, I guess that would be it."


Found alongside Glicken, only two miles from Mt. Unzen's fiery summit, were the husband-and-wife team of Maurice and Katia Krafft, both in their mid-40s. "Some friends would say I am nuts," Maurice Krafft once offered, "but if tomorrow I would die in a volcano I would be satisfied that I have seen enough."


Filmmakers as well as volcanologists, the Kraffts of France had gained a reputation during 25 years as the world's premier volcano chasers."


They were the last of a breed," lamented Lindsay McClelland, a volcanologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.


The deaths of the three volcanologists--who were enveloped in a hurricane of rocks and poison gas when the 4,485-foot mountain exploded on June 3--is the worst tragedy in nearly four decades to hit their profession.


The grief, ironically, comes at a time of intense excitement for volcanologists who today have the rare opportunity to observe two simultaneous and spectacular eruptions in Japan and the Philippines, where Mt. Pinatubo has created widespread destruction.


Although there are nearly 1,000 volcanologists worldwide, only a few dozen engage in the kind of daredevil research that cost Glicken and the Kraffts their lives.


The trio belonged to an elite, loosely organized fraternity that has dubbed itself the "Active Volcano Working Group," whose members undertake missions considered among the most glamorous and dangerous in science.


Armed with high-tech sensors, the front-line work of these volcanologists has added significantly to our understanding of when a volcano will erupt--and for how long. That means a better chance of saving lives, because imperiled areas can be evacuated.


'My wife says I'm a cat with nine lives and she worries that I'm going to use them up," said Juergen Kienle, 52, one of the group's veteran members. No wonder.


In 1976, Kienle and two others crashed their helicopter after lifting off in a heavy snowstorm from the frozen slopes of Augustine Volcano, located on an island off the Alaskan coast. For three days, the scraped and bruised men gathered hot volcanic pumice and used a copper tube from the helicopter to drip motor oil onto the pile, making a crude heater.


Ten hours after their rescue, the mountain erupted, engulfing the spot where they had been marooned.


On another occasion, Kienle's helicopter plunged into a mountain lake and sank. He and the pilot managed to pry the doors open underwater and swim to the surface.


"Everybody has their own worry threshold," said Norman Banks, 51, who has studied volcanoes for the U. S. Geological Survey for 24 years. "There have been times when I was scared out of my wits and other times I did things and realized later I had no business doing them.


"In Hawaii in 1983, Banks once lost his balance and sank into molten lava up to his knee, suffering third-degree burns. He survived by recalling the advice of a geologist who had a similar experience years earlier: He lunged backward, out of the lava flow, then rolled over to extricate his leg.


Two years earlier, while installing a seismic sensor on a cinder cone in the Mariana Islands, he was saved by a technician's radio call that the mountain was about to blow. Running, he reached his vehicle at the base of the 1,000-foot cone just as lava began pouring over the top.


Unlike scientists who study dormant and extinct volcanoes through rock deposits that are millions of years old, members of the active volcano group are obsessed with being on the cutting edge, studying geological processes as they occur.


"It's tempting to go to the throat of the volcano to get the data, because if you do you're a hero," explained Ken Wohletz, 39, a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a member of the volcano working group. "It's a battle between your mind and your emotions. If your emotions win out, you can get yourself in a lot of trouble. . . .


"There is a fine line between tragedy and an incident that can turn out to be no big deal," he added. "It all depends on what the mountain decides to do.


"Wohletz recounted a close call in 1976 at a volcano on the island of Guadeloupe in the West Indies. As he descended into a crater to install seismic sensors that detect earth movement, the mountain began puffing smoke and steam. As it turned out, it was only a warm-up and not the precursor of an imminent eruption.


These days, Wohletz limits most of his research to dormant or extinct volcanoes. "I think you have to say it makes your family life more stable," observed the father of two small children.


Spouses of volcano scientists cope with the danger in a variety of ways.


"I try to think of it rationally instead of emotionally," said Nanno Rose. Her husband, Bill, is a professor at Michigan Technological University and has flown small airplanes through eruption clouds for 15 years to collect gas samples and measure volcanic particles.


She recalled his first such flight in Guatemala in 1978. "The plane came back a wreck from all the scratches and heat spots. It was scary," she said, but added: "I know the risks he takes are well-calculated."


Like many people in high-risk jobs, volcanologists tend to downplay the dangers.


"I feel more uncomfortable on a freeway than I do on most volcanoes," said Dick Janda, a veteran scientist at the Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., near Mt. St. Helens.


The worst tragedy involving volcanologists occurred, not on a mountain, but in the waters off Japan in 1952. More than a dozen scientists lost their lives when their research vessel sank, killing all 31 aboard, after getting too close to an undersea eruption.


Since then, and until this month's explosion of Mt. Unzen, casualties among volcanologists have been sporadic and few.


In 1979, an eruption of Karkar Volcano in Papua New Guinea claimed the lives of an Australian volcanologist and his Papuan associate working near its summit. On May 18, 1980, David A. Johnston was the only scientist of 57 people killed when Mt. St. Helens erupted.


Johnston, 30, was killed by an avalanche of debris that covered the observation post on a ridge where he was working, eight miles north of Mt. St. Helens' dome. He was substituting for a young graduate student, who, having spent six days alone on the mountain, took the day off to attend a lecture.


The student was Harry Glicken.


"What happened at St. Helens is something that troubled Harry deeply for a very long time, and, in a way, I think it made him even more dedicated than he was before," said Richard V. Fisher, Glicken's mentor at UC Santa Barbara. "It certainly reinforced his respect for what volcanoes are capable of.


"His sister said Glicken never liked to talk about Johnston's death, but that the few times he did, "he was struggling with this 'why-him-and-not-me' kind of feeling.


"Glicken became intrigued with volcanoes while at Venice High School and never expressed any doubts about his choice of a career, she said.


Because of his work during the Mt. St. Helens eruption--and over the next six years--Glicken attracted more attention than most aspiring volcanologists. Then only in his early 20s, the shy volcanologist specialized in the debris-avalanche, a gigantic landslide associated with the collapse of all or part of a volcano.


Often at his own expense, he traveled to volcanoes in the Caribbean, Guatemala, Hawaii, Indonesia and Alaska. In January, he began a job at Tokyo Metropolitan University--two months after Mt. Unzen began to rumble intermittently after a nearly 200-year silence.


In the small circle of front-line, globe-trotting volcanologists, Glicken was well-acquainted with the renowned Kraffts, who held the distinction of having visited more than 300 of the world's 500 active volcanoes.


The couple had a knack for showing up at the right time in their relentless search for material for their film documentaries and volcano photo books. Like their peers, they regularly tapped into a database at the Smithsonian, called the Global Volcanism Network, which is continually updated with reports from the sites of active volcanoes.


"If they saw something on the network they were interested in, they would be on the phone saying, 'What do you think? Should we give it a try?' " said Smithsonian scientist McClelland. "They would jump on a plane at a moment's notice to Antarctica, Africa, South America. It didn't matter where."


"A volcano is like a wild animal and you are this crazy doctor who wants to understand what is his total problem," Maurice Krafft once said of volcanologists. He said it was his dream, though an impossible one, to ride a canoe down a lava flow.


Once, to the amazement of local villagers, the couple climbed aboard an inflatable raft and set out across a 650-foot deep lake of sulfuric acid in the crater of an African volcano. They quit only after acid ate through the cable they were using to lift samples from the murky broth.


Fisher, the UC Santa Barbara volcanologist, recalled the time in 1982 that he and another scientist were resting around a campfire near sunset on a remote and largely destroyed Mexican cattle ranch not long after the devastating El Chichon eruption.


"I saw these two figures on burros coming toward us and I reached for my camera, thinking what a great shot this would be," he said. "And then, as they neared, I heard a vaguely familiar voice from beneath a shawl and sombrero say, 'Dr. Fisher, I presume,' and of course it was the Kraffts.


"They would go into the bowels of hell for good footage of a volcano.


"The results were frequently spectacular.


In late May, when word reached the couple that molten rock and plumes of hot gas were spewing down Mt. Unzen's slopes in spectacular fashion, they were off again.


Glicken was to serve as their mountain guide and Japanese interpreter, colleagues said.


Unlike lava flows, which usually travel slowly, the scientists' lives were claimed by a so-called pyroclastic flow, which hurtles rocks and spews gaseous materials at high speeds and at temperatures that may exceed 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, experts said.


Authorities said the bodies of Glicken, the Kraffts and most of the other 36 people who died in the eruption, including 14 journalists, were found near the outskirts of a town whose 8,500 inhabitants had been evacuated a few days earlier.


The Kraffts had hoped for the chance to film a pyroclastic flow for a project they were developing "and Mt. Unzen fit the ticket," said Wendell Duffield, an Arizona volcanologist and friend of the couple.


"Had he survived," Duffield said, "I'm sure Maurice would have been satisfied that the mountain gave him everything he wanted."


Volcano Chasers

First published:

Los Angeles Times | June 25, 1991

"There is a fine line between tragedy and an incident that can turn out to be no big deal. It all depends on what the mountain decides to do."


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