man-vs.-the-elements accounts like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm enjoying seemingly infinite runs on the bestseller lists, it's hardly surprising that the 1993 eruption of the Colombian volcano Galeras, during which several volcanologists died, has generated a few book deals. Adding to the cachet of the several disparate survivor stories is the controversy generated by expedition leader Stanley Williams, touted initially in wide media coverage as the "sole" survivor of the explosion of rocks and gas that left nine people, including three non-scientists, dead. Surviving Galeras, which Williams coauthored with Pulitzer-nominee Fen Montaigne, can certainly not be mistaken for an apology in any sense. Williams maintains that even as team leader, he cannot be held responsible for his colleague's deaths -- predicting volcanic eruptions is yet no more a sure thing than shooting crap, according to Williams.
Nor does he really accept culpability for allowing the media to perpetuate the fiction that he was the only person on the expedition to survive the eruption. Many in the scientific community reject Williams' explanations of how he could take a group onto Galeras when warning signs of activity were present. Author Victoria Bruce's No Apparent Danger, for instance, cites the pioneering work of Williams' nemesis in the world of volcano study, Bernard Chouet, as enough to have kept the tragedy from occurring. What probably sticks more in his colleagues' collective craw, though, is Williams unapologetic media grandstanding after the fact. Is Stanley Williams bitter? Yes, no doubt; he's lost his standing in professional circles, he suffered serious physical injuries, his cognitive abilities are irreparably damaged and his marriage has fallen apart. Is he still in full possession of a fatal hubris? Probably; his egoism seems fairly undamaged. That sense of self-absorption seems common among today's adventurers (check out Everest-survivor Beck Weathers' Left for Dead, for example).
Regardless of what readers ultimately believe about fault in the deaths that occurred during the 1993 eruption of Galeras, Williams and Montaigne have put together an engrossing, approachable book that is part adventure story, part volcanic history, part window-peeping into the relatively tiny cadre pursuing the close-up study of active volcanoes. From Vesuvius to St. Helens, Williams explains the mechanics of some of history's most well-known eruptions, describing the how volcanoes kill people (suffocation, flash-cooking) in sometimes grotesque detail. He also introduces readers to the fascinating men and women he has known, alive or dead, who are trying to understand these primal energies of the planet so that, by reliably predicting when they are gearing up to vent the bottled forces at Earth's core, thousands of lives might be saved.