On this day 25 years ago, steam explosions at Soufrière Hills heralded a volcanic crisis that would change the face of the island and the lives of thousands of Montserratians forever. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the eruption, we have collected memories of those who witnessed the events of the day.
International development consultant Claire Howard had been on the island since April 1995. Her account paints a vivid picture of how the eruption took people by surprise and disrupted everyone’s life.
It was the evening of 17th July 1995. My boss and I finished work in Plymouth, and drove back to the house we were renting in Old Towne. It was a warm night, and we were sitting out on the terrace with a Carib beer. Unfortunately a small four masted cruise boat had moored just below us, in Old Road Bay, and started a rather loud disco on the deck. We turned the television on to drown out the music (even though the only thing we could find was a baseball match).
Around 7.30 pm, the phone rang. The caller announced that he was from the Montserrat Defence Force. He was trying to find my Government of Montserrat colleague, John, who was an officer in the MDF [Montserrat Defense Force]: ‘if you see him, tell him to get in contact as the volcano is acting up’. I put the phone down in a cross mood. Everyone had told us, since we arrived, that the volcanoes on Montserrat were extinct. So the message made no sense, unless it was a code. And I knew exactly what that meant. John had warned me the week before that there would be a disaster preparedness exercise involving the MDF, which would be at a surprise time, but definitely over the next couple of weeks. It was to be a simulated plane crash at the airport, and John expected that he would be occupied by the exercise for three or four days, once it happened. Clearly John’s MDF colleague was giving him a tip-off that the simulation exercise was about to happen.
This was not good news, as our work with the Ministry of Agriculture was already running behind schedule, and we did not need another delay. We went back to supper. And a little after 9 pm, John rang. He was terse: ‘Don’t do anything just yet, but get an overnight bag packed and be ready, if I ring again, to drive to the north of the island’. It was only then that we turned off the television, and we heard the sounds. They were loud, low, and more like an animal in pain than anything else. We walked up to the house of another colleague a few doors away and passed on the message. She did not look too pleased to be woken up. Then we went back and sat there, listening to the strange groans that seemed to be coming from the ground around us. Eventually, around midnight, we decided that there was nothing to do apart from going to bed.
I didn’t sleep well, and was woken up, getting on for dawn, by a much louder noise. I understand that it was at this point that the phreatic eruption broke the ground surface.
Perhaps I should have realised that something was going on. We went to visit Galway’s estate, and walked around Galway’s soufrière one weekend. There were plenty of hot springs and small fumaroles. But we had nothing to compare it to. One Saturday, I went to the Montserrat Springs Hotel in Richmond – partly to see their hot spring pool. When I got there, it was dry. One of the hotel staff told me that the hot water had disappeared a few months before, but they didn’t know why. Then, in May, I drove with colleagues to the airport to hold some meetings with the Airport Manager and staff. As we drove over the centre of the island, around Harris, we commented on the strong smell of sulphur. Sitting in the control tower (there were no planes due for some hours), the ATCs confirmed that the sulphur smell was unusually strong that year. They also said that people living in Harris and around the centre of the island had commented on the unusual number of earthquakes. It had been a hot and dry spring. Two of my Montserratian colleagues assured me that: ‘you always get more earthquakes if there is a heatwave’. I didn’t believe them, but didn’t think any further about it. A few days later, over the weekend, we visited the Waterworks estate, which looks right across the Belham Valley and over to the Soufrière Hills. The owner noted that ‘the mountain is getting awfully smelly, recently’.
The earthquakes started to become noticeable in June. I was on my own on the island when I felt the first big one in Old Towne. I was sitting in the garden, when I heard the noise and felt a shake. For a while, I wondered if the swimming pool pump had blown. A few days later, down at the office in Plymouth, we felt another earthquake; the movement of the ground from the south east to the north west was perceptible. Another moved through the kitchen in the Old Towne house, in what I now realise is exactly the same direction. But it is only in retrospect that you realise these signs were adding up to volcanic activity. No-one had the slightest suspicion that anything unusual was about to happen.
Many Montserratians have similar memories of the day, and the surprise and confusion the eruption spurred:
Claire Howard goes in her description of the events:
The morning of 18th July, we went to the office as usual. But as the day went on, ash was starting to fall on the cars in the car park. Only a small amount, compared to what we would experience later, but disconcerting. Our office assistant lived in the south, near St Patrick’s and said that there were more earthquakes there than in Plymouth. Another colleague who lived in Kinsale confirmed this. When we got back to the house, the ash and bluish gas haze coming out of the volcano obscured half of the mountain. And the following day, the ash carried by the steam emissions was even stronger.
Claire Howard left the island soon after for what was supposed to be a ten-day visit to the UK. It would be more than a year and a half later before she was able to return:
I was due to fly back to the UK for 10 days on 22 July. I packed up my bags, and, as the house was to be let to a tourist visitor for the following week, I put the non-perishable food, most of my clothes, the printer, my books and papers into some boxes and left them in the office. I was not to know that it would take 19 months before I would be allowed to return, while the south of the island was evacuated and two hurricanes passed over. Late one Friday evening in September, I was home in the UK, when the phone rang. It was my team: ’Do you remember that bottle of rum you left in your box of food? I’m afraid we are at the office, and we have just drunk it’, they giggled. Eventually, the team rescued my boxes from Plymouth as Government HQ was abandoned. Almost everything (apart from the rum) was intact when I got back in February 1997
For the people of Montserrat, the 18th of July was the beginning of an odyssey that would alter the course of their lives. As Yvonne Weekes puts it in her poem ‘Stripped’:
The mountain knows it has stripped us
pushed us into frothy oceans
kept us walking on rough lands
and into new dreams
Songs and poetry were important for those that stayed on island, as a means to express their resilience and fortitude in the face of hardship:
Many Montserratians moved to the UK during the volcanic crisis, where they keep their heritage and culture alive: The London-based choral group “Alliouagana Singers” has marked every fifth anniversary of the volcanic crisis with a song – “We Thank You” marks this year’s 25th anniversary: