The world and almost everything in it was not nearly so well documented in the 1950s as it is today and back in January 1951 nobody even suspected that Papua New Guinea’s Mount Lamington was a volcano, much less one that was about to erupt. But erupt it did, to fearful effect. The event began on January 18, with locals watching glowing volcanic bombs, minor landslips, ash emissions and lightning playing around the mountain. But nobody saw fit to inform Australian government, volcanologists about these unusual occurrences, much less consider what they might herald. Indeed, complacent officials discouraged apprehensive observers from leaving the area.
Three days later, at 10.40, a loud explosion was heard up to 320 km (200 mi) away. This blew out the side of the mountain and deadly pyroclastic flows killed everything within a 325 sq km (125 sq mi) area around Mount Lamington. The devastation did not have a uniform spread – going out as far as 12 km (8 mi) in some directions but only 6 km (4 mi) in others. The power of the exploding volcano may be judged by the fact that at Higaturu District Station, 10 km (6 mi) from the eruption, a Jeep was plucked up and hurled into a tree, where it lodged in the branches. Casualties were numbered in thousands, either killed by blast shock or instantly burned to death by the superheated pyroclastic cloud that burst from the shattered mountainside.
Rescue efforts were hampered by swirling fumes and suffocating dust, while the clean-up was repeatedly threatened by continuing volcanic activity. Lesser explosions and further tremors took place throughout January and February and on March 5 a secondary eruption caused a lava flow that travelled for 14 km (9 mi), igniting everything in its path.
When: January 18-21 1951
Where: Oro Province, Papua New Guinea
Death toll: The eruption is estimated to have caused between 3,000 and 4,000 deaths.
You should know: The complacency of the Australian administration was summed up by an official who – when criticism of official indifference reached fever pitch after the event – blandly stated: ‘As Mount Lamington volcano was eight miles from Higaturu, I formed the opinion that there was no immediate danger to human life’. Unsurprisingly, vociferous demands for a public enquiry into the tragedy were turned down.