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2002 Expedition Accident: Lava in the Kitchen

Page history last edited by Frederick Belton 10 years, 11 months ago

When the 7 expedition members plus guide Paul Mongi, cook Othman Swalehe, and myself arrived in the crater of Lengai at about 0930 on 4 Aug, all activity was confined to the T56/T57B area on the far side of the crater. Othman and Paulo established our supply camp in the Kitchen. They erected their tent in the north end of the Kitchen and placed numerous 10-liter water containers and large food bags behind the tent. The floor of the Kitchen was at about the same level as the crater but was separated from the crater by a low ridge about .5m high.  At the north end of the Kitchen the rim height was about 3 cm.


I was about to set up the clients’ tents in some flat spaces along the base of the rim, not far from the Kitchen, when we heard a loud gas-jetting sound.  We saw that a new vent, T49F, had just opened on the west slope of T49B and was producing a high fountain of spherical lapilli and also small lava flows, mostly of thin aa consistency.  We decided that our current camping location was unsafe and moved all of the tents south to a position just south of the new W rim overflow.  Othman and Paulo were told by both myself and Sven Dahlgren, a volcanologist, that their campsite was unsafe and in the path of lava flows.  We suggested that they camp with us or move to the crater rim.  However they were convinced that the kitchen was still safe from lava due to the protective ridge and bacause the vent was producing only slow moving, thin aa flows.  At around 1630 that day an aa flow actually reached the Kitchen ridge and stopped. Othman and Paulo still felt more comfortable in the Kitchen than camping with us on the crater floor where there was no protective ridge. Their tent was too large to fit on the crater rim.  They were adamant about their decision to stay in the Kitchen.  Paulo, in particular, has never liked camping on the crater floor.  What he did not seem to realize was that the Kitchen had essentially become part of the crater floor.


During the night I looked outside my tent whenever I heard any sounds from the new vent. Around 2300 there was an eruption similar to the ones earlier in the day.  I could see no lava moving toward the Kitchen.  But at about 0210 on 5 Aug there was a vastly larger eruption that produced a lava fountain at least 15 m high.  From my  tent I could see that a large quantity of lava was flowing rapidly toward the Kitchen. However, I was much too late to do anything about it. As I got out of my tent I saw flames from brush fires breaking out along the crater rim and very high flames coming from the Kitchen. As I started toward it I had an awful feeling that Othman and Paulo had just been killed. Fortunately I then heard shouting and they did not sound like shouts from dying people.


As I reached the Kitchen I saw that the tent had been pulled onto the crater rim slopes. The fire was coming from our burning food and water jugs. Paulo was sitting on the rim, shivering because he had no sleeping bag or shoes. He had several unbroken blisters from second-degree burns on his right foot, mainly between two toes. I returned to my tent and brought him my sleeping bag, but did not awaken the clients.  Othman and I tried to salvage food and water but there was little left to save. The lava had already burned or buried most of it. All but one water container was destroyed. A large tin of biscuits (cookies) was buried in lava up to its lid and many of the cookies inside had burned black. We pulled rice by handfuls from a partly burned bag.  We sat next to a fire that was fueled by 12 loaves of burning bread.  It was appalling.


I returned to my tent for an extra flashlight and as I came back there was another huge lava fountain. As I approached the Kitchen, Othman shouted a warning and I saw that fast moving pahoehoe lava was only 2 meters from me and closing fast. I jumped onto the crater rim and tried to save what was left in the Kitchen. The new lava flow covered our pile of salvaged rice.  Othman had given up and I certainly did not blame him.


Othman told me later that he realized that the lava was coming because the water jugs behind the tent exploded from steam pressure. Lava then flowed into the back of the tent and ignited their sleeping bags. Othman did not have his bag zipped so it was easy to escape, but he had to pull Paulo out of his bag. It was then that Paulo sustained his burns, not from contact with lava but from the sleeping bag. Then Othman had to fumble with the tent zipper in the dark as more lava came into the tent. They escaped and tried to pull the tent forward, away from the lava, but it was damaged beyond repair. It did not burn but was melted by the lava.  Obviously the presence of the Kitchen’s protective ridge saved their lives. The vulnerable point was the low north end of the Kitchen where the lava was able to enter. Lava also flowed in further south at another low place. Probably the large stack of food and water bottles aided their escape by preventing the lava from entering the tent more quickly than it did. However, the accident was entirely preventable and I should have ignored Othman’s and Paulo’s wishes and forced them to move up onto the crater rim even though their tent was much too large to fit properly on it.


On 5 Aug the Kitchen was moved to the crater rim, and fortunately more porters were coming that morning with water and some food.  Due to the high activity levels some people became worried and chose to leave the crater earlier than planned, so we did not restock the food supply. On the second night we took turns standing watch with a whistle to warn of approaching lava.  There were three large eruptions that night but no lava came toward the camp. Most people slept with their boots on just in case. That was the last night that anyone slept on the crater floor.   During the last 3 nights Jeff Brown and I were the only people on the mountain.  We camped on the west crater rim and lived on a terrible diet of Nutella and cookies, badly cooked vegetables, canned meat, and a large piece of cheese.  With no one to watch the camp while we were away the food was threatened by baboons. A large bird destroyed our garbage bag and spread trash across the camp. Mice ate our food at night.

Paulo was able to walk down to Ngare Sero.  He waited there for us because his burns were not severe and were not infected, and there were plenty of first aid supplies.   In Arusha several days later he was treated by a local doctor and seen to have no infection in the burns, but he was given an antibiotic just in case and also a tetanus shot.


Jeff Brown and I wrote a poem to commemorate the event:


Ode to the Kitchen


Lava in the Kitchen, no time for bitchin'.

It's comin' over the wall, boy what a close call.

While Belton was snoozin', the lava was oozin'.

In wee hours of morning, it came without warning.

Flowin' down from the vent, right into the tent.

Water jugs explodin', tin cans a‘glowin'.

Sleeping bags on fire, the situation's dire.

But the lucky guys survived, glad to be alive.

We all lived to see the dawn, but the Kitchen, it is gone!


Morning of Aug 5, 2002.  Goodbye to the Kitchen!  Photo by Jeff Brown.


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