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50th Anniversary of Eldfell Eruption at Westman Islands

By Susan Huff



Westman Islands - Susan Huff photo
Westman Islands - Susan Huff photo

Turbulent seas and severe storms made it unsafe for fishing, so almost the entire fishing fleet of 60-70 fishing ships lay in the harbor at Vestmannaeyjar. The occupants of the island of Heimaey slumbered away in a deep winter's sleep when they were awakened in the early morning of 23 January 1973 around 2:00 a.m. by fire engines' sirens sounding their alarms. A volcanic eruption had begun on the island without warning. This was the beginning of Iceland's largest natural disaster in recent history--the eruption of the Eldfell (Hill of Fire) volcano.



Volcanic activity is integral to Iceland. Iceland lies astride the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian Plates are moving apart. The Vestmannaeyjar archipelago, or island chain, lies off the south coast of Iceland, consisting of 15 islands and 30 skerries (small rocky islands) and sea stacks--all formed by eruptions. Heimaey (Home Island) is the only settlement on Vestmannaeyjar (also known as the Westman Islands) that is inhabited year-round. Because there are few good harbors along the southern coast of Iceland and because the waters in the south are rich fishing grounds, the harbor at Vestmannaeyjar has consistently been the center of Iceland's fishing industry. Vestmannaeyjar is important to the economy of Iceland.



Kristinn H. Benediktsson Photo
Kristinn H. Benediktsson Photo

Within six hours of the eruption's onset, almost all of the island's 5,300 inhabitants had been evacuated to the mainland by boat. Some people remained behind to try to save belongings from threatened houses and to perform essential functions. A few people who were unable to travel by boat--mostly the elderly and hospital patients--were evacuated by air. Planes were sent from Reykjavik and Keflavik to assist. By the end of the day, all evacuees were spread around the mainland--housed by family, friends, and strangers.