Eyewitness accounts of the 25 June 1997 pyroclastic flows and surges at Soufrière Hills Volcano, Montserrat, and implications for disaster mitigation

S. C. Loughlin*, P. J. Baxter, W. P. Aspinall, B. Darroux, C. L. Harford, A. D. Miller

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

61 Citations (Scopus)


Eyewitness and survivor accounts allow reconstruction of the sequence of events on 25 June 1997, when a sustained partial collapse of the lava dome occurred leading to the death of 19 people. An unsteady pyroclastic flow was generated with three distinct pulses. The third flow pulse caused most of the damage to infrastructure and most, if not all, of the casualties. Pyroclastic surges detached along most of the path of the third flow pulse, and one travelled 70 m up an adjacent hillside.Observations were made that will be important for the development of mitigation measures at future events involving high-temperature flows and surges. Temperatures remained high (300-400°C) at the periphery of the most voluminous and extensive surge, even though dynamic pressure and velocity were low, causing the death of seven victims. Some people survived at the margins of the surge zone but suffered serious burns when they were forced to walk across the hot surge deposits to safety. Deflagration of buildings and vegetation was immediate within the pyroclastic surge and intense fires burned long after the volcanic activity had ceased. Fires could be a serious secondary hazard in an urban area. Search-and-rescue efforts were hampered in the immediate aftermath of the pyroclastic flows and surges by smoke and ash in the atmosphere. The hot, locally gas-rich surge deposits posed a major hazard to search-and-rescue workers and volcanologists for days afterwards.Despite the efforts of officials, scientists and concerned members of the public, about 80 people were in Zones A and B of the Exclusion Zone on 25 June 1997. Our findings suggest that many had become accustomed to the pyroclastic flows and had become overconfident in their own ability to judge the threat by observing repeated flows that had gradually increased runout but remained restricted to valleys. Many people had contingency plans and believed that there would be observable or audible warning signs from the volcano if the activity were to escalate significantly. However, there were no such discernible warnings and individual contingency plans proved inadequate. Public education should concentrate on correcting such public misapprehension of hazardous phenomena and attendant risks in future volcanic crises.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)211-230
Number of pages20
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2002


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