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The eruption claims its first victims

We’ve heard it said repeatedly over the last few days: “It’s not a matter of if, but when, someone gets hurt.”

This morning an extensive search was launched for three people, a man and two women, who had driven into the Fljótshlíð area* to take a look at the eruption. They were in a Honda SUV and initially called police two days ago because they’d got their car stuck in a river. Police in Hvolsvöllur, a nearby village, were about to set out to search for them, but then got another call yesterday morning saying that it wasn’t necessary – they’d managed to get their car unstuck.

When they hadn’t returned last night, rescue teams were called out to search for them. One woman was found today; she was cold and exhausted but is now recovering. The second woman was found dead later this afternoon, some 700 metres from their car.

The search for the man continued this evening, and it was reported that he had been found about an hour ago – between 9 and 10 pm. Police are giving no details of his condition; however, there was an interview with a police official on RÚV at 10 pm and he looked pretty grim. I fear the worst.

Apparently the people got lost en route and eventually their vehicle ran out of gas. And boy, that is not a place you want to be lost in the middle of the night in the middle of winter. Besides which the weather was absolutely atrocious last night.

It’s so sad. And it’s strange, but I expected that if when someone did get hurt it would be due to some foolish move like hiking up on Fimmvörðuháls without proper equipment. I certainly would not have thought it would happen to people who were in a vehicle and were driving quite a distance away from the eruption.

It just goes to show, yet again, just how powerful and merciless our nature can be.

UPDATE: It has now been reported that the man was deceased when he was found, some 4-5 km from his car.

* Where EPI and I went on the Reykjavík Excursions tour

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  • Marko April 7, 2010, 1:15 am

    It’s sad to see over and over how people underestimate harsh nature of Iceland’s interior.

    I always remember one line I read in airplane magazine when I first flew over here 10 years ago. “You may be two hours from Reykjavik, but don’t underestimate how far from civilization you will be”.

  • The Fred from the forums April 7, 2010, 1:23 am

    Nothing can fix that situation now, but it’s an opportunity to remind people of the less obvious safety rules. All the guidebooks and tourist info say to make sure someone knows where you’ll be. It’s less widely understood that in an emergency, if you have a vehicle you should stay with it. Whether it’s an SUV that’s out of gas or a crashed airplane, it’s easier to searchers to find than it is to find a lost human. Unless it’s on fire, it also is a source of shelter.

  • Joerg April 7, 2010, 8:01 am

    A couple of days ago, on April 1st, there was an article on Spiegel Online in Germany about the tourism in connection with the eruption. According to this article Fljótshlið would be the place, where people parked their car to walk up to the eruption site. It appeared like an April Fools’ joke but surely wasn’t meant to be. They seem to have mistaken Tindfjallajökull for Eyjafjallajökull or did not care about facts at all.

    Apparently, the tourists in this case did not have a better knowledge of the place. I wonder, what the heck they were doing out there. Apart from the fact that a small Honda SUV is completely unsuitable for Fjallabak Syðri, they can’t get anywhere close to the actual eruption from the place they started their doomed venture.

    The weather in the first two weeks after the eruption was absolutely treacherous – so sunny and calm. Now, it’s more like back to normal as far as Fimmvörðuháls is concerned. I hope, there won’t be more accidents of this kind.

  • Chris April 7, 2010, 10:20 am

    And its not the first people this week, who got in trouble. A french tourist who crossed the Markarfljot river got very cold and ended up asking for help in Husadalur. How stupid is this? Crossing a glacial river in the winter? On the other hand he is lucky doing this in the winter, otherwise the water would have been much higher…

  • alda April 7, 2010, 11:20 am

    Thanks, everyone. Yes, it is proven again and again how terribly harsh Iceland’s interior can be. And these people were Icelanders — so one tends to think they should have known better. But of course they just planned to drive to the site like everyone else — but got lost.

    Joerg – it is thought miraculous that they got as far as they did in a car that was so badly kitted out for this kind of thing.

    Chris – yes, and that guy WADED over the river. In winter!!

  • Chris April 7, 2010, 11:50 am

    @Alda: No, its not so miraculous. Its winter, so the water level of the glacial rivers is not very high, also because of the cold temperatures. The snowmelt has not yet started and there is more or less no snow (or at least there has been) in the valley. The weather was extremely calm and mild in the first two weeks of the eruption. Under this circumstances a lot more people could go there than normally. I even saw Yaris crossing the rivers – which is completely insane. I was in the area and the first two rivers have been not deeper than 30cm. They have a lot more in the summer.

  • Joerg April 7, 2010, 12:21 pm

    “And these people were Icelanders ”

    I have to admit, this is taking me by surprise. I would have betted on those people being foreign tourists. Despite the poor equipment it is beyond me, how this could actually happen. There is a cabin at Hvanngil close to Bláfjallakvísl, where the car had been found. At least it could have provided some shelter. And it should have been a prime rule for this kind of accidents to stay together, as close to the car as possible, to be found easier.

    And wading Markarflót in winter is actually giving me the shivers right now. It’s cold enough to wade through – far smaller – Icelandic glacial rivers in summer.

  • Chris April 7, 2010, 12:33 pm

    @Joerg: You`re right about the hut. But you have to know that it exists and you have to know, where it is located. These people obviously didn’t really know, where they have been, since they told the police that they are heading back, after they freed themselves from being stuck in a river. Instead they headed further into the highlands. I think this tells a lot.

  • alda April 7, 2010, 12:34 pm

    Those people should absolutely not have left the car. But I suspect what happened is this: one of them (probably the man) went out to search for cellphone reception, which you can sometimes find if you climb up a bit higher, or just move to a different location. When he didn’t return, the others may have gone looking for him.

    This is just speculation, though. While the first rule is that you should not leave the car, I wouldn’t judge them harshly for doing so. They had been in telephone contact with police the day before, so probably thought they were just out of reach.

  • Joerg April 7, 2010, 2:57 pm

    “one of them (probably the man) went out to search for cellphone reception…”

    That’s sounds like a reasonable explanation. The cellphone coverage in the uninhabited area has increased considerably over the last years. This is probably another sad example for the fact, that the technical progress can make people more reckless and neglect common sense precautions.

  • Palantir April 7, 2010, 8:04 pm

    People can be totally careless. One TV document about Florida coastal guard mentioned them having rescued someone whose only map was a restaurant tablemat depicting a sketched map of the Caribbean. People with small boats venture far from the coast with not enough fuel, and get surprised how the sea currents push the boat further away…

  • Paul H April 8, 2010, 3:52 pm

    As luck would have it, our planned jeep tour to see the eruption was on the 6th. The weather caused the route over the glacier to be closed.
    So we were taken through the valley alongside the volcano. We got close, but, with mountains in the way, we only got to see the red glow in the sky and a couple of lava spurts before it got really dark and we had to return.
    We were in a properly equipped, and manned, jeep. We never felt at risk as a result. It was a real adventure in any case. Serious off-roading to be sure. We saw the search teams (up close) just as they were wrapping things up, and finding the missing man, I guess.
    I don’t believe their vehicle was really suited to such a trip. People we spoke with seemed amazed that they had managed to get as far as they had with such a vehicle. Leaving the vehicle was definitely the big mistake. I am learning to have fearful respect for Iceland’s environment.
    We are hoping to get the trip to see the eruption done properly upon our return some time in the summer. Hopefully the weather will cooperate this time.
    Seeing the Northern Lights just about every night from our own front porch was totally awesome. Got lots of photos. Very sad, again, to have to leave ‘The Land’. We shall return, however.

  • alda April 8, 2010, 4:36 pm

    Paul – gone already? It seems like you just got here!

  • JimJones April 8, 2010, 5:06 pm

    “And these people were Icelanders — so one tends to think they should have known better. ”

    Well, kindof. I have seen this happen when people do carpentry(I’ve spared you the story of someone shooting himself in the stomach with a nail gun. Trust me, that’s a blessing.), driving, or anything else that is dangerous.

    People who are new to something have a tendency to tap dance right on the line of deep respect/utter terror for whatever it is they are doing. They may not be as good at it as the more experienced people but they tend to be less likely to take risks(if anything, newbies tend to prepare too much. I know intellectually that a super jeep, certified guide/geologist, and full winter gear including a scary mask is probibly a little excessive to see the volcano, but Iceland weather can be scary and becoming a Tourist Popsicle would ruin the vacation).

    However, once you get a certain level of skill carelessness can set in and(even though what is produced is better) there is a better chance that accidents can happen. The person doing whatever it is looses the edge of fear that was keeping them safe.

  • Paul H April 8, 2010, 5:42 pm

    Alda- Yes, sadly. We will return in the summer for a much longer stay, at least double in length. It is always too short a period of time though. Each time we are very sad to leave. When I get my iPhone apps going strong we should be able to have much longer stays. That is our goal.

  • Joerg April 8, 2010, 5:58 pm

    I was more surprised by the driving into the wrong direction and by the lack of knowledge of the place than by this careless risk-taking. I am often very impressed seeing, into which terrain Icelanders are bringing their cars. But the bigger the tires the more risk people are willing to take and for every jeep there exists a river, which is not manageable under certain conditions, or some other adversity happens. So, I think, it’s not too uncommon that people get stuck somewhere, but usually they know, where they are and what to do to get back.

  • Sigvaldi Eggertsson April 8, 2010, 8:08 pm

    Joerg, I think the people did not intend to go this far, they seem to have gotten lost (the weather was atrocious) and made a wrong turn somewhere.
    I am not sure this has got anything to do with careless risk-taking.

  • Joerg April 9, 2010, 7:04 am

    Sorry, that I add another comment. If it’s too much, just skip it 😉

    Sigvaldi, I think, the people made their cardinal mistake, when they decided to cross the first river, which apparently exceeded the limit of their car. Until that point they should have been able to backtrack their traces easily. Crossing a large river in winter, even at a low water level, always means taking risks. Doing so improperly equipped without knowledge of the place is what I would call careless. Everything that happened afterwards could be attributed to external circumstances beyond their control, like the deteriorating weather – and maybe they were too exhausted and hypothermic after freeing their car to be able to make reasonable decisions and thus took the wrong turn. I don’t judge them for this, I have crossed rivers in Iceland at the limit of my car myself and will never know, in which river I’m going to end up. It’s just a tragedy showing the consequences of bad judgement.