Etna escape: ‘Pelted with the deadly, hot debris’

Etna is usually doing something. That makes it a draw for scientists and tourists.

When we arrived in Sicily, we discovered that we were in luck: Mount Etna had just started to erupt again.

I was part of a BBC team who had come to film a report on volcano monitoring.

Getting to witness an awakened Etna was about as exciting as it gets for a science correspondent. I just didn’t intend to have quite such a close encounter.

The conditions were perfect – blue skies and barely any wind. And as we travelled towards the snow-covered summit, the thunderous booms as Etna spewed magma from its south-east crater reverberated all around.

We had come to see a lava flow that had appeared overnight. A giant stream of rock, glowing red, was oozing down the slopes – and we had been taken there by a scientist from Italy’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, who was monitoring its progress.

Dozens of tourists had also been brought by Etna’s guides to see the spectacle.

The lava was so slow moving it’s not usually considered dangerous, and the fierce heat as the rocks fizzled and crackled preventing anyone from getting too close.

Rebecca Morelle

Clothing was burnt through as the hot rock fragments came downLava flow

But about 20 minutes after arriving, a burst of white steam emerged from the lava – it didn’t make much of a noise or look especially threatening – but the guides started asking people to move.

Then, moments later, there was an explosion. The lava had mixed with snow and ice, and boiling rocks and boulders were flung up high into the air. They started to rain down in every direction.

Everyone started to run, pelted with the deadly, hot debris. But it was impossible to see – steam from the explosion had caused a whiteout.

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