Fishing boat rescues 10 after volcano eruption

Posted: Monday, July 14, 2008

ANCHORAGE - A fishing vessel rescued 10 people after a volcano erupted, sending rocks and ash down on a cattle ranch on a remote island in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska.

The Tara Gaila picked up the people Saturday evening after receiving an urgent call from the Coast Guard. The fishing vessel brought them to Dutch Harbor about 65 miles away, where they were staying at a hotel on Sunday.

There were no reported injuries, said Coast Guard Petty Officer Levi Read.

Lonnie Kennedy, who lives on Umnak Island at the base of the 3,500-foot volcano with members of his family and a couple of ranch hands, said all seemed normal until late Saturday morning.

"We heard something that sounded like thunder and went outside and right away realized it wasn't thunder. It sounded like huge rocks rolling or something," he said. "I told everyone it sounds like the volcano is blowing up and we need a plan to get out of here."

Kennedy said they were able to get an emergency call out to the Coast Guard requesting help.

In the meantime, Kennedy said he used a helicopter to fly family members six miles away to Unalaska Island to get away from the worst of the ash. He first ferried his daughter-in-law Shurery, and the baby Baily, to the island across Umnak Pass where the family has a cabin.

Next, he got two of his children, 9-year-old Amy and 4-year-old Parker. After that it was wife, Susan, and 16-year-old daughter Lily. Finally, it was his son Ross and two ranch hands.

The ash was really coming down, he said.

"You could see no daylight in any direction. It was pitch black," he said. "I was scared."

In the meantime, the Tara Gaila arrived and deployed a life raft to bring the 10 people to the boat. The family arrived in Dutch Harbor at 3 a.m. Sunday.

When the Coast Guard got the call for help Saturday, it sent two cutters to Umnak Island, located in the western Aleutians about 860 miles southwest of Anchorage, but recalled them after the Tara Gaila responded to the emergency call. It also sent a helicopter but it had to land in Dutch Harbor because of damage being done by the volcanic ash.

The Okmok Caldera, which consists of a 6-mile-wide circular crater about 1,600 feet deep, erupted with little warning Saturday morning, just hours after seismologists at the Alaska Volcano Center began detecting a series of small tremors.

The explosion flung a large ash plume into the sky.

Kennedy, his family and the two ranch hands were at Fort Glenn, a private cattle ranch six miles south of the volcano. The ranch residents managed to call military police on Kodiak Island using a satellite phone before losing their connection.

The volcano erupted at 11:43 a.m. and reached peak activity about two hours later, said Cyrus Read, a geophysicist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory, which has several seismic stations on the Okmok Caldera. The Okmok Caldera contains more than a dozen volcanic cones. Scientists weren't sure which cone exploded Saturday.

One of the observatory's seismic stations that was placed at the rim of the volcano likely was destroyed in the explosion, Read said. Several others stations were functioning Sunday.

"It continues at this time," Read said. "It is a pretty solid plume."

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