50 years since the eruption in Heimaey

The gate to the Cemetary with the volcano in the …

The gate to the Cemetary with the volcano in the background. The gate reads: I will live and you shall live - a saying that thankfully applied to the volcanic eruption in 1973. Photo/Reynir Guðsteinsson

The history of big events is worth remembering, celebrating, and learning from, as much as possible. The volcanic eruption in Heimaey in the Westman Islands, which started half a century ago, on the night of January 23 rd in 1973, is such a case. It is still amazing that no harm or loss of life occurred when the cold winter night erupted literally in the outskirts of the town of Westman Islands and one of the biggest sea ports of the country. The islanders set out in the dark of night with fishing boats and made it to safety on the mainland.

Man against nature

The nation was reminded of the vulnerability of the human being and the smallness against nature’s  immense powers,” says the bishop Karl Sigurbjörnsson, who at this time was the minister in the Westman Islands and who served people who had to deal with unprecedented situations in their lives and work. Sigurbjörnsson says that in his mind there was a hidden protective force over the islands and people there in this extraordinary natural disaster. The eruption finally ended in the middle of the summer and at the time the process of rebuilding had already started. The islands began to thrive again, and in that determined act of solidarity man defied the powers of nature both literally and in spirit. What helped a lot was the idea of cooling down the lava so the lifeline of the town, the port was saved.

The Eruption in Heimaey, Westman Islands 1973 was massive.

The Eruption in Heimaey, Westman Islands 1973 was massive. mbl.is/Ólafur K. Magnússon

“The eruption night and the events then were an amazing experience and a magnificent spectacle. It was accompanied by strong colors and loud noises, and in fact it was too surreal to be true,” says Guðrún Erlingsdóttir, who was one of the 5,000 residents of the islands to flee to their homeland when the volcano erupted. Erlingsdóttir tells her story in a special issue of Morgunblaðið, as does engineer Pétur Guðjónsson. He says that this experience had a huge and lasting maturing effect on his life. “The eruption penetrated my subconscious more deeply than I realized, ” says Guðjónsson.

Unique event

The swift reactions of people to these circumstances were unprecedented and showed the solidarity of the nation in time of distress. For instance, hundreds of timber houses for the inhabitants of the Westman Islands were constructed in many areas in the southwestern part of Iceland. The people living there had to adapt to the new reality of the area, and often the conditions were not exactly ideal, as the interviewees in Morgunblaðið’s special issue describe. However, it was important to be resilient and to look to the future with optimism.

A large number of people returned home after the eruption, with deep experience they never thought they would have. Scientists and first responders have also been looking at eruption in the Westman Islands for information, so they have studied many things that can be useful in other natural disasters. The Eyjafjallajökull eruption was, and is, a unique event; undoubtedly the biggest news in the history of Iceland and yet there are many astounding occurrences of great importance when looking over the field of history.

The people of the Westman Islands will remember that fateful …

The people of the Westman Islands will remember that fateful day 50 years ago when they woke up right next to the volcanic eruption and needed to flee the island to safety. mbl.is/Ólafur K. Magnússon

Series of events in the Westman Islands today

Today on the 23rd of January, a series of events will take place in the Westman Islands to mark the half century since the eruption began in Heimaey. The program began at 1:30 AM in Eldheimar, or around the time when the eruption is supposed to have begun. However, the exact timing and sources of the events are not known. At half past two today children in the 10th grade at the secondary school in Vestmannaeyjar will begin reading various news texts and interviews that sounded on the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service on January 2 rd, 1973.

The reading is approximately 10 minutes and will be read at the whole and the half hour for  the next 24 hours. This will help students to gather funds for their school trip in the spring. The town hall meeting will begin at 12 AM.

Most of the people returned to the islands and the …

Most of the people returned to the islands and the town was rebuilt and is thriving today. But the experience of those who lived the eruption will never be forgotten. mbl.is/Sigurður Bogi

A memorial service is held tonight at Landakirkja church and people are expected to turn up at 18.45 PM. There they will be gathered and then there will be a torchlight parade and a march to Eldheimar at 19 PM. The Reverend Guðmundur Örn Jónsson and the Reverend Viðar Stefánsson will recite words of blessing at the start of the walk. A memorial event in Eldheimar then begins at 19:30.

There, Iceland’s President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Páll Magnússon, the President of the town’s municipal government will address the islanders. Music for the event is in the hands of Silja Elsabet Brynjarsdóttir and Helga Bryndís Magnúsdóttir, but the latter is from the Islands, the daughter of the late Mayor Magnús Magnússon and the sister of Páll Magnússon, mentioned above.

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