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Montserratian woman recounts the Soufriere Hills volcano eruption

When the first signs that the La Soufriere Volcano in St Vincent was awakening became evident late last year, the eruptions of 1902 and 1979 dominated conversations by residents both young and old.

However, for Montserratians, the April 9 eruption of La Soufriere volcano triggered memories of what they endured in the aftermath of the Soufriere Hills volcano which spanned from 1995 to 1997.

Ayesha Walters was a teenager at the time.

She told Loop Caribbean: “The days leading up to the eruption were pretty normal. I was thirteen years old. I was living with my grandmother who I had lived with since I was six weeks old. My younger brother was living with us too at the time, so it was me, my younger brother, my grandmother and two of my uncles, we were all living in the same house and we lived in Plymouth.

“The days leading up as I said were pretty normal but what stood out to me was the pungent smell of sulphur. We would smell it all the time. We often hiked to Soufriere Hills and would usually smell the sulphur when we went up there, but in the days and weeks leading up to the eruption, we were getting the sulphur scent in town quite frequently. I also remember we would get up in the morning and there would be a thin film of dust over everything, we just couldn't figure it out.”

Ayesha said she was at a cake decorating event when she found out the volcano was active again.

“…somebody rushed in and said, "The volcano is erupting, the volcano is erupting." At that point I wasn't scared, because I was 13, I had not a care in the world...”

Her family lived right at the foot of the mountain so in the interest of safety, their nights were spent with friends who lived in Salem, a town that’s further north of the island, and in the safe zone.

“We would go over there at night to sleep and then I would go to school in Delvins which is like the middle ground between safe and unsafe. So, that's what we were doing in the early days. We would go over to sleep in the night, then come back.”

Ayesha said after a while they got complacent as nothing was really happening. They returned home and it wasn’t long before they were living normally and going about their daily routines, despite the imminent threat posed by the volcano.

She said all was well until one day the island was blanketed by a huge ash plume.

“I will never forget it, I can’t remember what day it was but I remember I was in town close to the bank and the pyroclastic...the ash just came rushing down you couldn’t get away. I went into the bank to get away from it but my grandmother was out in the field so she got caught in it.

"She said she couldn’t even see her hand if she held it right in front of her face because of how dark the place got with this ash cloud that came down. We started wearing masks for protection because people started to get sick," Ayesha recalled.

It was at this juncture, Ayesha said, that residents of Long Ground, Bethel and Tuitt’s, communities in the direct path of the volcanos pyroclastic flows, moved to the northern section of the island, seeking safety.

“I remember this clearly. They were living in tents, we had not moved yet over to that side of the island. But many people were living in tents…”

As the situation deteriorated, Ayesha said her grandmother thought it best to send her and her younger brother to visit their mother who lived in Antigua at the time.

“We were supposed to leave the Saturday, and for some reason, I cannot remember, we missed our flight, and we didn’t get to go. And that Saturday night, I think that was the scariest thing that I had ever experienced during the volcano so far because it was a night of nonstop earthquakes. The house was shaking, we couldn’t sleep, you could hear the glass, the cutlery, the glass everything in the cupboards, just shaking, shaking, shaking. Before dawn broke the next day, my grandmother took us to the airport and sent us on our way.”

Granny, Mary ‘Mamzel’ Tuitt joined them and together they spent that summer in Antigua.

“What I remember about this, is Hurricane Louie was passing the same time that we were in Antigua. The hurricane was heading to Montserrat where the people were living in tents. There was no escape for them, I mean a hurricane is coming! I can’t remember what category Louie was, but it was very, very bad. Thankfully, at the last minute, it shifted and Antigua got the brunt of this hurricane.”

Returning to Montserrat...

With the end of summer fast approaching, plans were afoot to have Ayesha and her brother enrol at a school in Antigua, but with some improvement to the situation in Montserrat, they returned home with Granny Mamzel.

“We went back to Plymouth and we were there awhile… we got complacent, you know, there’s nothing really happening, there’s no big explosion. But the dome kept growing and a piece of it would just fall off now and again, there would be a bit of pyroclastic flow, ash… but we weren’t really worried yet…”

While some of her friends migrated to England, Ayesha and her family stayed in Montserrat.

Her uncle was one of the head officials at the Emergency Operations Centre so they figured if anything he would be able to help them get out of harms way quickly.

This theory faced the ultimate test in 1997.

Ayesha said she was in school during what appeared to be a typical day.

Because of the constant activity at the Soufriere Hills Volcano, drills were frequent to ensure that every student would make it safely out, should the need arise.

“That day will always live in my memory like it’s planted there, it will never be removed. I remember the sounds, I remember the expressions on people’s faces. And in our class, we had, one boy, Curtis whose parents were farmers. During the day some people chanced going into the unsafe zone but they had to be out by night time and they had to keep their radio on. Anyway, on this day I don’t even think it was even midday yet and we could feel that there was something in the air. Something was, I don’t even know how to describe it but we knew something was coming. We kept hearing these things on the radio, and Curtis he was so scared. He said: “my parents are up in the hills today, they’re up in the hills, they’re farming today”.

They were all petrified and as they would soon find out, their fear...the unease they felt all day, was justified.

“We just saw this plume, oh my gosh, this plume of ashy cloud. And it just kept going, and going, and going nonstop. And we’re waiting, they’re telling us to line up, we have to get evacuated, we have to leave. I had to leave but I had to find my younger brother, make sure he was with me cause if he wasn’t my grandmother woulda killed me.”

Thankfully, Ayesha found her brother and they were being piled onto the school bus when Curtis’ parents truck sped by.

“We were standing right there and we see this white truck, which is Curtis father’s truck just zoom past, going out of the danger zone, cause we’re right on the edge of both zones. And we saw it and we’re like oh my gosh thank God they made it out.”

The students were taken from school and dropped off in Salem, which according to Ayesha was just a little distance away from the unsafe zone.

From there, they had to make their own way home.

“Now I look back on it I think, that it’s so irresponsible because how can you leave children in the middle of an area without any idea of how they’re going to get home? But luckily I was a little bit older and I could help my brother and we got home. Later in the night, we found out that Curtis’ mother, his aunt and another brother from the church had died. Only Curtis’ father made it out, it was gut-wrenching.”

Ayesha described the funeral as one of the most tragic experiences she’s had.

“They couldn’t even get them into coffins because of how they died. They were buried in the same position they were in when the ash came down. My uncle was actually a part of the team that went into the danger zone to retrieve those bodies and bring them back so that they could be buried. I remember the screaming… one guy left like five very young kids. His young wife, they were from Guyana but they had moved to Montserrat. I could see the children just clinging to their mother, they probably didn’t even understand what was happening. So yeah, those are the closest people that I knew from that eruption, who died in that eruption on June 25, 1997. I will never forget that day.”

Editor's note:

This is part one of Ayesha's recollection of her experience when the Soufriere Hills volcano erupted between 1995 and 1997. Stay tuned to Loop Caribbean for more of her story.

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