Heimaey: The eruption of January 23, 1973:
Since the time of settlement in Iceland, the inhabitants have constantly been reminded of the unpredictable powers of nature that abound in this country. Without warning the island of Heimaey ripped open and an explosion of fire and flames danced a wild dance. Only ten years before the islanders had watched as the new island of Surtsey had risen from the ocean depths just southwest of Heimaey. At this moment men were reminded of the destructive powers of the same energy.
The eruption began at 1:45 am on the morning of January 23, 1973. People were prepared for a small disturbance but noone could have predicted the destruction that would accompany this eruption. Fortunately, because of bad weather the evening before, all of the fishing fleet was in the harbor. With the blessing of a change to unusually good weather for that time of year, the evacuation of all 5200 islanders who had to leave their homes in haste on this fateful night went smoothly. Few could comprehend the reality of what was happening, the event started so quickly.
During the next few months many saw their life?s work burn to ashes and be covered by the flowing lava. Those that stayed behind on the island doing rescue work had little time to think of anything other than to try to protect what remained from the fire and lava. Many people, especially young men, got to wrestle with the challenge of fighting fate day and night. Another reality existed for those that waited up on the mainland. Once independent and selfsufficient they had to rely on others and wait for an unpredictable outcome.
Though the quick desertion of their homes had tried the endurance and preseverance of the islanders, it is needless to say that the strain increased during the weeks that followed. People began to realize the full extent of the disaster and no one knew if they would ever be able to return to the island that they called home. One of the biggest concerns was the fear of the lifline to the island, the harbour, being closed by the lava flow. Immediate attempts were made to put up defense walls and cool the lava. It took time to get pumps powerful enough to pump enough water to hinder the flow of lava, but it soon became clear that the cooling of the lava and other defense procedures helped in preventing an even worse outcome.
The Surtsey eruption had continued for four and a half years and no one could forecast how long the Heimaey eruption might last, though it was quite obvious that the majority of islanders never lost faith that they would someday return. Capelin was processed at one of the fishing plants during the middle of the eruption and towards the end of the eruption the cleanup effort went amazingly quickly. The volcanic eruption stopped at the end of June and during the next months two thirds of the islanders returned to their hometown. Rebuilding began and the daily turn of events started to roll again after the nightmare of fire and brimstone.
Cooling the lava
On the very first day of the eruption Professors Þorbjörn Sigurgeirsson, Trausti Einarsson and the geologist Leó Kristjánsson, visited the island to see if it would be possible to use seawater to stop the advance of the lava if threatened to close off the harbour or engulf the town itself. The first attempts to check the lava began two weeks after the start of the eruption, by which time the lava had come dangerously close to the mouth of the harbour. These attemps gave ground for optimism and more powerful pumps were brought in. On March 1st the dredging and pumping ship Sandey arrived with pumps able to spray 400 liters (100 gallons) of water per second 30 meters up onto the hot lava. Even more powerful pumps arrived by air from the USA on March 26 and went into use on March 30. It is estimated that a total of 6.2 million tons of seawater was pumped onto the lava and at the peak of the operation about 75 men were working to stop the encroaching lava flow. Positioning the pumping equipment at the edge of the glowing lava was difficult and the men often took great risks while working to stop the lava flow.
But as can be seen, the operation was a great success.
What should the volcano be named ?
People soon started to ask what the new mountain should be named and everyone had an opinion. The question was put forth in the newspaper, Morgunblaðið, and suggestions poured in to both the newspaper and the island radio program. Many felt that it should be named Church Mountain because the eruption started on the farm named Church Farm. Among other suggestions were Rumble Mountain, Town Mountain, Chill Mountain and Prophecy Mountain. A total of 30 names were submitted. The decision of the Place-Name Institute was announced April 24, 1973. The new mountain would forthwith be called Fire Mountain. Not everyone was satisfied with this name. For example on January 23, 1974 professor of Geology, Sigurður Þórarinsson wrote to the mayor of Westmann Islands, Magnús Magnússon, about a mistake that had been on a radio program earlier that day. It was mentioned during the program that Professor Þórarinsson had been on the naming committee and therefore was partly responsible for the unimaginative and commonplace name, Fire Mountain... He retorted "Fire Mountain means nothing other than volcano and I found it unnecessary to have to inform the inhabitants of the island that this new mountain was a volcano. I preferred the name Church Mountain. I found it simple and natural and also historically right. It would have fit well with the name Holy Mountain that stands next to it. Holy Mountain actually saved the town because the volcanic eruption began on the opposite side of it."
Headquarters in Reykjavík at Hafnarbúðir
On the first day of the eruption the city of Reykjavík offered the town of Westmann Islands free use of a building as headquarters. Within a short time rescue and shelter operations increased tremendously. For example, during the first day the telephone system that had been installed could not handle the increasing demand so eleven lines had to be added to the existing three and a 16 line switchboard was also installed. There was never any real time to organize the rescue workload. Situations created new problems often quicker than it was possible to solve them. It was these situations that controlled the activity and in reality organized the workload. During the first days people were mainly searching for information about where friends and family had found shelter. The islanders also wanted to know when it would be possible to return to Vestmannaeyjar to retrieve their clothes and other household belongings. When the first islanders came to Reykjavík, the Red Cross helped them find temporary shelter and created a computerized listing of addresses and phone numbers for over 4000 people. The combined efforts of the Red Cross and the organizational headquarters in Reykjavík proved to be a strong and productive team. Beside the many volunteers from the island other volunteers also offered their help through Red Cross. Reykjavík school children, companies, organizations and institutions all gave what help could in one way or another. Numerous requests to get to the island resulted in travel regulations enforced by the Department of Civil Defense. The issuing of travel passes became one of the most difficult and time consuming jobs at the headquarters. Special identification cards were issued to the islanders. These cards qualified people for the special services that were being afforded the islanders and without these identification cards, people could not retrieve their personal belongings that were being transported to Reykjavík. Unclaimed belongings accumulated and were set in a lost and found department in Reykjavík. Transportation was needed to drive the belongings that were claimed by individuals to their new places of residence. Most people had abandoned their homes in haste and had little or no cash with them. The Red Cross allotted part of the incoming donations to help people get settled. Donations from the Icelandic Church Aid Fund and the Youth Aid Fund were also used in this way and soon the employees of the town office took over these responsibilities.
A group of women from the island took it upon themselves to begin serving coffee in the cafeteria on January 25th. The Womens Club of Heimaey volunteered all their work. Meals were prepared there by the students of the Hotel and Catering School for the first three weeks. Permission was granted by the ministry of education to close the school meanwhile. The number of meals prepared each day often ran to about 600. Volunteers that were working around the clock at the warehouses where personal belongings were shipped in from the island had hot meals delivered to them while they worked. As people eventually found housing the demand for meals in the cafeteria declined, but the cafeteria remained an important meeting place for the islanders.
The Housing Committee immediately started operations and made good headway into the problem of finding accommodations for everyone. Many people had found temporary shelter in schools and with relatives. The ability to shelter such a large number of refugees within a matter of only a few hours drew worldwide attention. Soon it was obvious though that the island refugees needed more permanent housing. The offers of single rooms, apartments, summer homes and even a whole summer recreational institute were all used. The biggest help in solving the problem came when an area of summer homes, Ölfusborgir, was utilized and by January 28th this housed 280 islanders.
The Icelandic Disaster Fund quickly took over responsibility of housing. The Department of Employment found work for 200 people. With the establishment of a special radio program for the islanders many employers phoned into the program and offered employment to those who needed it. The Red Cross opened a counseling service at the Department of Public Health. It also supported the running of two childcare centers with the help of the Icelandic Church Aid Fund and opened a center for teenagers in Tónabær
The Disaster fund
The Disaster Fund was formed by a parliamentary law on February 7, 1973. The parliament elected a committee and the Prime Minister chose a chairman and co-chairman. The Disaster Fund was the executive power in all the rescue and defense procedures in Westmann Islands.
The town had to be cleaned of volcanic ash, houses and other buildings had to be repaired and people had to be compensated for their losses. The fund paid numerous costs for homeowners such as house payments and interest on loans. Compensation was paid for damaged and lost belongings in addition to loss of income.
Of the 1349 families that had to abandon their homes in Vestmannaeyjar on January 23rd, 1973, almost 900 of them turned to the Catastrophe Fund to help them find housing in 30 different locations on the mainland. In order to execute this difficult task, the Catastrophe Fund bought 542 prefabricated houses from Scandinavia. By taking a survey of islanders it was decided where these houses would be placed on the mainland.
Forty-six apartments were also built in Reykjavík and Hafnarfjörður. The decision was made in August 1973 that the fund would accelerate the rebuilding and resettlement of the island with the return of the largest companies and their equipment. To encourage resettlement, the decision was made in September to pay compensation to those people that returned. On October 1st the town council resumed executive control.
(Based on documentation of the activites of Vestmannaeyjar township in Hafnarbúðir by Georg H. Tryggvason, municipal lawyer, and documentation for the Red Cross concerning their aid from January 23 till the middle of February.)