Fatal Attraction : Woman Who Loved Climbing Volcanoes Killed During Eruption
Kelly Elizabeth Stephens loved volcanoes. They helped draw her halfway around the world from her home in Massachusetts to live and work in Indonesia, which has more active volcanoes than any other country.
These peaks were the destination of many of her weekend hiking, boating and scuba-diving expeditions with friends and the subject of some of her most enthusiastic letters home.
But on June 13, Stephens became one of only two Americans to die from a volcanic eruption in the 1990s, leaving her family and friends bereaved, and pointing out for the second time this year the deadly nature of explosive mountains.
Last Jan. 14, nine foreign members of a scientific expedition, exploring volcanic hazards, were killed in Colombia when the 13,680-foot Galeras volcano erupted without warning while they were in and around the crater. Four American scientists in the group were injured.
On June 3, 1991, an American researcher, Harry Glicken, formerly of UC Santa Barbara, was killed by an eruption of Japan’s Unzen volcano.
But these episodes involved scientists. Stephens, 37, and five companions who were injured--three Britons and two Indonesians--were climbing the Indonesian volcano for sport.
Stephens died at the site of one of the greatest explosions of modern times, at Krakatoa, in the Sunda Strait, between the islands of Java and Sumatra. There, on Aug. 27, 1883, a mountain rising 2,667 feet above the sea was destroyed, leaving only a crater beneath the ocean’s surface. The eruption and ensuing tsunamis killed 36,000 persons.
The area eventually became quiet, but in 1927 there were further eruptions, and on Jan. 26, 1928, a new volcanic cone emerged from the sea near the same spot. It was named Anak Krakatoa (Child of Krakatoa), or, by a more modern spelling, Anak Krakatau.
By the time Stephens visited the site, after several years working as a coordinator of English-language programs in Indonesian universities and ministries, the cone was about 600 feet high.
Stephens had an advanced English teaching degree from the University of Chicago and was also respected as an accomplished outdoorswoman.
“She had climbed volcanoes back of Bandung (on the island of Java),” her father, retired Tufts University professor Robert Stephens, said from his home.
“She had climbed a not particularly active volcano, fairly high, at Jogjakarta. She also climbed Mt. Agung on the island of Bali, the largest volcano there. . . . There were many pictures of her taken on various volcanoes, some high enough to be wearing winter clothing, even in that tropical country.”
In addition, Stephens was an advanced diver and a frequent white-water rafter; she camped often, dived throughout Indonesia and sailed. “I can think of hardly a thing she didn’t do,” her father said. “She didn’t parachute jump, but she loved the outdoors.”
She became fascinated with Krakatoa, because of the beauty of its surroundings, its relative proximity to Jakarta, where she was based, and also because, she noted in a letter home, the date of the historic eruption, Aug. 27, was the same as her birthday, 72 years later.
On Aug. 17, 1992, after her second visit, Stephens wrote to her parents in Marblehead, Mass.: “We climbed Krakatoa early Saturday morning, 6 a.m.
“When we arrived there, it was still smoking and sulphur-topped. (It’s) a very interesting area because you can see the old crater before it blew its top. It’s now underwater and a couple of miles in diameter. It’s an amazing sight.”
And with an approaching tour by her parents in mind, she added: “We could go down there for a weekend if you like. It only takes a half an hour to climb it. Well, maybe it’s too strenuous for Dad. Anyway, we spent the rest of the weekend diving and exploring the national park. . . . It’s a beautiful, pristine area.”
On Nov. 7, 1992, Anak Krakatoa entered into a new eruptive phase. As the Bulletin of the Global Volcanism Network, issued monthly by the Smithsonian Institution, reported in its May 31 issue:
“A mid-November lava flow reached the northwest coast and entered the ocean. This lava flow continued to advance until early February. Beginning in February, a new lava flow traveled south southeast, destroying seismic stations maintained by the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia. . . . Another lava flow descended to the north in April, overflowed the old crater rim in May and burned a forested area near the coast.”
The cone grew to a mile in diameter and 900 feet high, but when Stephens’ party returned to the area by boat from Java on June 13, the climbers received two pieces of misinformation from residents of a nearby port that made it appear Krakatoa was relatively safe.
First, surviving members of the party told the Jakarta Post, they were informed that the mountain hadn’t erupted for 2 1/2 months. Second, they were led to believe that all of the activity had occurred on the western side.
Having been told, according to the newspaper, that “whatever smoke and dust and hot rocks that were thrown out had been thrown to the west,” the party decided to climb only on the southeast side, and then only after laying off shore and watching for 90 minutes for any signs of activity. There were none.
Alex Jones, 28, told the Post: “When we (originally) decided to go on the trip to Krakatau, we didn’t intend to go to the island.”
However, the reports the climbers got, along with their observations, caused them to change plans.
Said Robert Stephens: “When they left the boat, someone suggested that they go up to the first ridge, about 300 feet, survivors told us. The survivor (Ronald Lilley, 30) who was most helpful in rescuing Kelly, pulling her off the mountain, talked to us.
“He said they were up there less than half an hour. And they were on their way back to the boat when the whole earth trembled and all this rock and hot ash and smoke went pluming into the air and fell on the southeast side, right where they were climbing.”
Jones told the Jakarta Post: “There was smoke, flying stones and burning ashes. Dust was everywhere, and the hot lava was coming down.”
Everyone in the party was burned and injured, but Stephens, with a broken leg and burns, was hurt the worst. Another woman, Gayatri Lilley, 25, suffered a broken arm when hit by falling rocks.
It took only 10 to 15 minutes for the party to get off the mountain. Ronald Lilley and another man carried Stephens, placed her in a dinghy, returned to the main boat and radioed for an evacuation helicopter. But when one didn’t come, they set out for a port in Java.
“Twenty minutes from shore, Kelly died,” her father said. “A doctor friend of mine said that with a trauma like a broken leg, there can be an embolism. She was calm, she had asked for water, was totally rational and lucid. But suddenly, without any warning, she passed away.
“There was no panic, thank God, but suddenly she was gone. I was the one who became panicky when we got the news.”
At a family memorial service in Maine, Stephens’ sister, Laurie, said: “I’m glad that she spent the last day of her life in the outdoors on a beautiful sunny day in an exotic part of the world that she loved so much, marveling at and awestruck by the power of nature, the beauty of Krakatau.”
The family established a scholarship fund in her memory to assist in the overseas education of Indonesian students.
Scientists monitoring the volcano said later there were 212 separate explosions at Anak Krakatoa the day Stephens and her party were present.
The Smithsonian report called the explosions “moderate” and noted that since the present eruptive phase began last November, “tourists have been advised by the Volcanological Survey of Indonesia and the local government to remain at least three kilometers (about two miles) from the island.” That advisory apparently never reached Kelly Stephens’ party.
Island of Doom
Kelly Stephens carefully circled Krakatoa for two hours by boat before landing, then died in a sudden eruption as she began her climb.