Rabaul 1994

Rabaul Caldera, Papua New Guinea (Lauer, 1995)

Following a 27-hour period of intense earthquake activity, Tavurvur and Vulcan volcanoes on opposite sides of the Rabaul caldera erupted on September 19, 1994, early in the morning. Nearby Rabaul Town was covered with ash as thick as 1.5 m (5 ft), and an estimated 90,000 people were displaced from the area.

"The ash was mushrooming out in thick clouds-but there was no noise. The earth had stopped moving. It was 6.15 am. We watched in awe. The clouds began to drift towards us... What a tremendous experience! But now the sky was darkening and black specks of ash were falling on us like light rain. There was also an overpowering smell of sulphur."

7.30 am, after driving to a new location, about 8 kilometers (5 mi) from Rabaul town. "Soon the clouds would reach Kulau too. Suddenly there were fears of being overcome by poisonous gas. The smell of sulphur was sickening and the air was a strange, yellowish colour. The the power went off. In a moment of panic, people, including our party which had now increased to eleven, decided to head for the safety of Kerevat, using the North Coast Road. Progress was extremely slow as the road was choked with half the population of Rabaul, all with the same idea. Eventually the vehicle traffic halted altogether. Due to unusual thermal patterns Kerevat was deluged by mud rain and the road quickly became impassable." The party returned to Kulua.

"The next day brought much of the same-but it seemed to drag on and on. The atmosphere was very heavy. There was no power. Every time we left the house we collected ash and pumice on our skin and in our hair. And the noise-the thunder and lightning was constant, with some almighty cracks. It was obvious that objects were being struck."

Five days later, describing a visit home to retrieve belongings: "There were parts of trees all over the road, flattened vegetation everywhere and everything covered in ash and mud. Our houseyard looked like a moonscape—house, water tanks, plants—all a drab grey. The trees along the bank had snapped and lost most of their foliage... inside the house was a depressing mess. The floors were covered in ash. There was even ash on the ceiling above the louvres and caked along the top of the curtains."

Nine days after the eruption: "The ash was dreadful all day yesterday. It was clearly visible in the air and I could feel and see it on my skin every time I stepped outside. I can't get used to wearing the mask and goggles. I found the smell of the masks nauseating so I've taken to wearing a folded handkerchief over my nose and mouth like a "baddie" in a Western movie."