On a quiet Wednesday night in April of 1997 I made one of the dumbest decisions of my life. Thank God I’m alive to talk about it.
This week marks 25 years since activity was first reported at the Soufriere Hills volcano in southeastern Montserrat. The fiery monster would go on to devastate the island’s infrastructure, hasten massive migration and dilute a culture centuries in the making.
The Good Book says the meek shall inherit the earth. But history has taught us that the earth often inherits the meek. On June 25, 1997, a group of farmers desperate to reap a potato harvest met their deaths at the hands of a pyroclastic flow in the exclusion zone. It was the most tangible and dire example of the volcano’s capability.
In the two years of seismic activity before that tragic day, the volcano was almost a tease. Some villages would be evacuated, activity would subside, and residents would return only to be evacuated again when the tremors resumed. The ashfall seemed more of a nuisance than a deadly harbinger.
From my home in South Florida I would hear about media from all over the world descending on Montserrat. As a journalist myself I wanted to see the volcano first-hand.
My good friend Steve Bramble, who is also a native of Montserrat and lived in Florida, worked for Carnival Airlines at the time. The company is mostly known for its cruise lines but was once a popular air carrier. We decided to take a short trip back to our homeland. We had both been away from Montserrat for some years and saw the trip as a chance to reconnect with family and friends and also see the famous powder keg.
Steve procured a buddy pass for me and on Monday, April 28, 1997, we set off to Montserrat. We flew from Fort Lauderdale to Puerto Rico, then boarded LIAT to Montserrat, with stops in Tortola, St. Kitts and Antigua.
When we arrived at W.H. Bramble Airport (named after Steve’s grandfather who was Montserrat’s first Chief Minister) the island seemed calm. Steve lodged with a family member in Salem and I stayed with relatives at my boyhood home about four miles away in Weekes’ Estate (Byer). By that time many villages in the East and South, plus Plymouth, had been evacuated. But I didn’t detect a frantic atmosphere. Government offices relocated to Salem and other villages further north and people carried on with their lives and seemed to be more in tolerance mode rather than panic mode.
Steve and I would meet up each day and make the rounds, catching up with friends. One of his old friends was Owen Roach, a standout cricketer and radio personality who later became an attorney. He also sang calypso as a hobby. In fact he won the Road March title (most popular jumpy song during the annual Festival) a couple years earlier. I did not know Owen before that trip. I knew Steve since 1989 when he moved to Miami. Owen and Steve had known each other since childhood.
On Wednesday night, April 30, 1997, Steve, Owen and I were hanging out after Owen’s night shift at Radio Montserrat. Steve and I were disappointed that we would be heading back to Miami the following day without getting a good view of the volcano. Sure, we had seen it smoldering from afar, but we wanted a closer look.
One of them suggested that we drive to the south of the island. We had already put away a few beers by that time. It was about 10 p.m., but never underestimate the power of liquid courage.
The three of us set off in a white Toyota Tercel that Steve had borrowed from his sister Dawn. With Steve at the wheel, Owen riding shotgun and me in the back we drove through Salem, down Belham, through Cork Hill and headed to town. When we got to Lover’s Lane there was a gated checkpoint with a policeman on guard. When I saw the officer I assumed we would be ordered an instant U-Turn.
As we drove up slowly, Steve said, “Don’t worry, let me handle this.”
“Where are you all going?” the officer asked, looking mildly perturbed.
“Um, we’re going down by my dad’s house to pick up clothes,” replied Steve, whose family home was in Groves, just a quarter-mile away.
“Oh, OK,” the officer said, showing nary a sign of skepticism.
He pushed aside the heavy steel gate and we drove through. We drove past Steve’s family home, then into the heart of Plymouth. Electricity was non-existent in the exclusion zone. Our only source of light was the headlights from the vehicle. We slowly drove south, through Wapping, Kinsale, Gingoes, then to St. Patrick’s. During some parts of our drive, the area looked like the backdrop from a Mad Max movie, nothing but ash and rocks and ash-covered rocks. But some parts of the south had not been heavily damaged by ash yet. There was still vegetation, and the main road, although ashy, was fairly accessible.
When we felt we had reached a satisfactory vantage point to the volcano we stopped and turned off the car engine. When we turned off the headlights we literally couldn’t see each other even though we were just a few feet away. So we turned the headlights back on. We were still swigging the Heinekens we brought along. We hadn’t told anyone we were going on the rogue adventure. We didn’t have any cellphones, which were not mainstream yet. We were basically at the mercy of nature.
We got out of the car and looked toward the east. There it was. The dragon in all its glory. It was definitely roaring. The dome was glowing, first brightly . . . then dimmer . . . like the tip of a cigarette when the smoker inhales. Balls of fire would careen down the side, sparking a galaxy of embers. It was beautiful. It was terrifying.
The volcano appeared to be no more than a couple miles away. But our immediate surroundings were eerily quiet, with only the sounds of crickets in the distance. I began to feel vulnerable. We snapped a few photos. The headlights had been on for some time and I was worried the car battery might die.
“Guys, let’s get the hell out of here,” I said.
We got back in the car.
We started driving back toward town. I began secretly praying to get back safely. Thank God for those faithful headlights. No flat tires please. When we arrived in the middle of Plymouth I felt a bit of relief as we were closer to the safe zone. We stopped again, this time in the middle of Parliament Street in the section that used to feature Bata (Carlisle’s Shoe Center), Osborne’s and Mr. Wall’s store. We stood on a pile of ash and took some more photos.
Finally, we began our drive back to civilization. We arrived back at the checkpoint where the officer had let us through. He was still there on duty. He opened the gate again and never even thought to ask why our simple visit to the Bramble house took so long.
Steve dropped me off at Byer and he and Owen drove to Salem. My heart-rate went back to normal. The following morning was the first of May. I met Steve at the airport and we traveled back to Miami with a souvenir in tow: a box full of authentic Montserrat ash that we collected in Plymouth.
The dome was glowing, first brightly . . . then dimmer . . . like the tip of a cigarette when the smoker inhales. Balls of fire would careen down the side, sparking a galaxy of embers. It was beautiful. It was terrifying.
The following month, the volcanic crisis reached its peak, resulting in the death of the 19 farmers and the permanent evacuation of more villages, including Weekes’ and Cork Hill. A massive exodus to Britain took place later that year, including several members of my family. Montserrat would never be the same again.
Only in hindsight do we get the true magnitude of folly. Most of the villages we drove through that night are now permanently buried under ash. We were out in the wilderness, in the crosshairs of an active volcano, with no form of communication. I also can’t ignore the irony that one of Owen Roach’s popular songs was titled Man a Dead Quick.
“That’s what happens when you’ve been drinking too much and have too much time on your hands,” Steve said, laughing, recently about the dangerous night trip.
Fueled by alcohol and adventure, we drove as close as we could to the volcano in search of a bird’s-eye view. If there had been an eruption in our direction that night we would have been sitting ducks.