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Brief recollections of the 1979 volcanic eruption

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Last Thursday was the 38th anniversary of the eruption of the Soufrière volcano on Good Friday, April 13, 1979. I have vivid memories of that event, but can only share a few personal highlights. In fact, 1979 was one hell of a year, as Sparrow recalled in his calypso “Dead Or Alive”. I woke up at Peter’s Hope hearing talk of a volcanic eruption. I swore that the announcers on 705 Radio were fooling around and paid little attention until I got to Barrouallie and found the park crowded with persons from North Leeward, who had had to flee their homes. There was nothing else that indicated then that the volcano had erupted until later that evening, on getting out of bed I stepped into volcanic ash. Efforts to get to Barrouallie were thwarted when I tried to wipe my windshield and made a bad situation worse, so that driving was out until next morning. I later found out that there were five eruptions on that first day, which The Vincentian referred to as ‘Black Friday’.

As I got to Barrouallie, I was greeted with a bit of news that was splendidly hilarious. Water was stored at the primary school in rum casks that had not been properly cleaned. One of the organizers could not understand why the men were drinking water all night. The story was that the first man who went for water could not believe his luck. He informed his friends and they drank water all night, so that by morning the containers were empty.

Wanting to find out what was happening in Kingstown, I visited one of my favourite spots – the Fishnet. That afternoon, Shake Keane was holding court, sitting at the back of the Fishnet, as he always did, with a cigarette in his right hand and a Guinness, I believe, in his left. It was there that he composed his famous ‘Soufrière ‘79’ poem. By then, I realized that there was a great deal of fear floating around. Rumours spread that the volcano was too big for the country and could split it in two. The word was that the Marriaqua Valley was the site of an old crater and it was possible that an eruption could also take place there. By then, the airport, Immigration and LIAT offices were crowded as people tried to leave the country in droves, some urged by relatives overseas. Premier Cato, while addressing the nation one evening, indicated the possibility of a big eruption within 10 hours. He urged the public not to panic, but panic they did, resulting in the largest attempt to leave a country that was about to split in two.

After several days without an eruption, some of us, volunteers, concluded that it was finally over, so we organised a picnic at Peter’s Hope beach, followed by a party at the Doctor’s residence at Pembroke. Someone phoned the radio station and spoke to Nina Maloney. I remembered her playing some special tunes, dedicated she said, to those who were enjoying their latenight dancing. Shortly after, I went outside and was greeted by bright mushroom clouds from another eruption. This information was relayed to Miss Maloney, who then informed the nation.

There is so much that can be written about that event, but Shake Keane best captures the spirit of the time: “The thing split Good Friday in two/and that good new morning groaned and snapped like breaking an old habit.

“Within minutes, people/who had always been leaving nowhere/began arriving nowhere/entire lives stuffed in pillow-cases and used plastic bags/naked children suddenly transformed into citizens.”

(How many of us remember that Dr Keith Rowley, Prime Minister of T&T was one of the volcanologists monitoring the volcano?)

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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