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Tanna Volcano…once in a lifetime experience

Posted on: January 25, 2009

Chances are pretty good that you have never actually stepped into the mouth of an active volcano.  I had visited a number of active and dormant volcanoes and felt I had a fair knowledge of how they work and what they do.  I have had my legs slightly burned by old steam vents many miles away from the actual volcano.  When I decided to fly to a nearby island northeast of Australia to see yet another active volcano…I had no idea what was in store for me.  I left from the island of Efate along with nine other tourists and a pilot on a small plane bound for Tanna island and volcano.  I enjoyed having the co-pilot seat on the plane as it made for a panoramic photo opportunity.  We arrived at the small airstrip and then to our bungalow style accommodations where we would spend the night.  After refreshments, we were loaded up in a van with four wheel drive for a two hour bouncing ride to the volcano.  I could go on about the scenery…but honestly it is the hearts of the native people that touched me the most.  Everywhere there is any kind of dirt road…there are families, elders, parents, children and even little babies by the side of the road waving as you go by.  It matters not that you are unknown to them…only that someone was coming down the road…and a warm welcome is always top priority.  Little piglets, roosters and chickens wander at will.  Nearly everyone has the same scraggly looking dog.  As we got nearer to the volcano the sky showed large puffs of blackened smoke and the earth rumbled as though in a very grumpy mood.  Finally…we arrived.  It was a steep climb to scale the crushed volcanic rock to reach the level area where we would all stand.  It grew pitch  black almost immediately.  The earth rumblings grew louder and the hot lava was spewing at varying heights from just below.  We were all quite excited and caught off guard as a huge release of sulfur made it difficult to breathe.  All you could do was cover your face and turn away until the air had cleared.  As everyone was busy taking pictures…I was at the very front of the volcano.  One more step and I would have fallen in.  Suddenly without warning…the volcano sent a very large piece of hot lava hurling upward and over my head.  I did not really think anything about it as it was clearly over my head…and much higher in the air than anything else had been thrust.  I barely had time to comment that the volcano seemed to be getting angrier by the moment…when a loud scream came from behind and then total panic with cries for anyone knowing first aid or anyone who spoke French.  A French woman was gushing blood from her head and belly areas…and no one knew exactly what happened.  It was assumed that she had been hit by the hot lava chunk…and everyone was sickened to think how badly the burns must hurt.  I offered water and help to try and prevent her from going into shock.  She was carried into a van for a two hour drive to the nearest medical help.  Only a few of us had any kind of flashlight and I helped older women off the steep hill as we followed the illumination on the ground.  We barely got everyone off the hilltop when the volcano went crazy…spewing hot lava higher and higher in every direction covering the area where we had been standing .  It was a frightening turn of events to what had been such an exciting trip.  With six provinces, seven hospitals and eighty three islands…there are not enough doctors to go around.  As luck would have it…there was a doctor on Tanna and he came to talk to us after he had stitched the French woman up.  She would be fine after all.  We were told there was an oriental gentleman and a lady standing behind him (quite some time ago)…and the volcano sent a small piece of hot lava into the crowd.  The piece went through him and through the woman behind him…killing them both instantly.  That is how hot lava is from an active volcano…no chance to survive…you would be incinerated instantly.  The French woman had either been thrown from the thrust of the hot lava chunk landing or perhaps fell trying to run from it.  No one will ever know…but when I looked back at my pictures in the Tanna Volcano album…you will see the hot lava and about a foot away someone standing with shoes in the left hand section of the picture.  That is how close the woman was to being incinerated…so if you are ever invited to go to a live volcano…go prepared with a good flashlight and pay attention.  Your life could very well depend on it. 
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