Biologists escape Aleutian island just before volcano erupts

Two scientists rescued from burning flows of gas, steam and ash

Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Two federal biologists were rescued from a volcanic island Thursday just before it erupted, sending a 35-thousand foot ash plume into the air.

The biologists, who were studying birds, were rescued from volcanic Kasatochi Island in the Aleutians. They were rescued by a local fishing boat.

Official said the escape allowed the unnamed biologists to escape burning flows of gas, steam and ash that reportedly enveloped the island.

"If they had been there, they certainly could have died," said Stephanie Prejean, U.S. Geological Survey seismologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory.

Kasatochi is the third Aleutian volcano currently rumbling. Okmok began erupting July 12. Mount Cleveland erupted July 21.

Alaska Volcano Observatory scientists are working around the clock to inform the public and emergency responders about the situation.

"Kasatochi went from a quiet volcano to an explosive eruption within 24 hours and with very little warning," said USGS scientist Marianne Guffanti.

Scientists relied on seismic instruments on other volcanoes in the area to detect the eruption on Kasatochi.

The biologists were to be removed from the island Wednesday, but a helicopter that was to have rescued them had mechanical problems.

A U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife boat was too far away, and there was no immediate response from a call to fisherman for help, said Poppy Benson of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer.

Early Thursday afternoon, someone from Adak was able to reach them by boat.

As they awaited arrival of the boat, Prejean said the shaking on the island grew increasingly intense, lasting about 20 minutes. She said they then began to smell sulfur gas, a sign of an impending eruption.

The ash plume caused an air travel advisory and was expected to drop ash on the neighboring community of Adak, Prejean said. Scientists have not been monitoring the volcano, and there's no record of when it last erupted, she said.

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