The eruption in the Westman Islands in 1973 is seared into the collective memory of Icelanders. It encapsulates so many interwoven dramatic narratives.
My dear, there seems to be an erupting volcano in our garden
There is the sudden terrible threat of the volcanic eruption. Just imagine waking up in the middle of the night and there is a massive eruption just outside your window. The serendipitous presence of the fishing fleet in harbor and its critical role in the successful evacuation of the islanders. Then there is the massive effort to save valuables from people’s houses and the epic struggle with the lava which was threatening to close the harbor. Rescue workers were using pumps and hoses to cool down the lava and thus slow its advance towards the mouth of the harbor.
People worked around the clock, shoveling ash and pumice off roofs to stop them from collapsing. US Servicemen on their way home from Vietnam were drafted in to help with the around the clock shoveling. People in the Westman Islands still remember their hard work and dedication with fondness and I suspect the rescue effort may have been therapeutic for many of the soldiers and marines.
Visit Eldheimar, the exhibition about the eruption in the Westman Islands
But in spite of all the heroism and the massive effort, a one third of the town was engulfed. Just over 400 buildings were buried under lava or other volcanic material. The town of Westman Islands which was an economic powerhouse when the eruption started never quite recovered. But make no mistake, the Westman Islands is a fantastic place to visit. I am fascinated by the story of the 1973 eruption so when I visited the islands recently I insisted on visiting the interactive exhibition Eldheimar which recently opened. Eldheimar literally means ´World of fire´ in case you were were wondering.
Eerie glimpses of Westman Islands before the eruption
The exhibition features an easy to use audio guide which accompanies the various sections which you go through. Cool videos and interactive displays tell the story of the Heimaey eruption in a compelling way. The centerpiece is unique. It is an actual house excavated from the volcanic material. Of course it is heavily damaged and there is still some volcanic material inside. But it is quite eerie to see glimpses of daily life so rudely interrupted. You not only get to peep through the windows but you can use a joystick to control cameras inside the house. These houses that have been buried are often referred to as ´Pompeii of the North´
Revealing the human cost of the eruption in the eruption in Westman Islands
You can also watch a film about the excavation of the house and it is moving to watch the lady who used to live there come into her house forty years later. Her story and so many other stories are told at Eldheimar and are a poignant reminder that there was a real human cost to the eruption and its aftermath.
Precursor to the drama
On the top floor is another exhibition which covers the eruption which created the small island of Surtsey in 1963. Little did people know that event would be the precursor of the drama that followed a decade later.
Ascending the volcano
I found it necessary to ascend the 200 meter hight Mt. Eldfell after my visit to Eldheimar. It is just nearby the exhibition building and it is is an easy trek. Your shoes may fill up with volcanic material and as a fun fact I can add that nobody would have wooden floor in the Westman Islands years after the eruption. The volcanic material that was everywhere would ruin it completely in no time.
You can see markers which identify were streets used to be before they were buried.
The view at Mt. Eldfell (literal translation of Eldfell is Fire Mountain) there is spectacular. And up there you grasp the sheer magnitude of the devastation caused by the lava flow, ash and pumice. When I got down to the house I was staying just nearby I was told that prior to the eruption you could stand in that street and look out to the ocean. Today that view is completely blocked by Mt. Eldfell.