“I was working that day. I met a friend who had been to the house. He told me I should go home. I did. Walking home I looked across the ocean. I could see large plumes of smoke. It was the day of the largest eruption. It was the day your brother died.”
It’s a story I’ve been told many times. It’s short and never changes. Ever.
That was my father’s recollection and connection, to the submarine volcanic explosion off the western coast of the Azorean island, Faial, in the fall of 1957. He was in Graciosa, 147 kilometers away, but with a clear view of the island directly across the channel, the smoke filling the sky was easily seen.
The eruption and tremors lasted 13 months (September, 1957 to October, 1958); displaced 2,000 people; buried 300 homes and a lighthouse; and added 2.4 kilometers to the island’s land mass, most of which has been reclaimed by the ocean.
On my recent trip to the Azores, visiting this area was a must.
Faial, is a short 30-minute ferry ride from its neighboring island, Pico, where I was staying.
Helena, stocky, red-headed, and chatty, was the tour guide and cab driver I had arranged to meet on the pier. She was happy to show me her island.
Together we drove through the lushness of the Natural Park of Faial, a protected area that comprises 17% of the island’s total land mass. Helena took me farther, deeper, higher towards the caldera, a symbol of the island’s volcanic beginning.
A shroud of fog surrounded us. Still, the flora and fauna of the area could be observed, including Laurel trees as tall as 60 feet. Thick-green bushes of blue hydrangeas lined both sides of the road. Unseen birds chirped. The fog and mist, which are common in the Laurisilva forest we drove through, added to the mystique.
The sights and sounds of Faial filled my senses – hues of green, yellow, and blue; soothing sounds of waterfalls, birds, and the Atlantic Ocean.
The last stop on my island tour was Capelinhos, the site of the volcanic eruption, so entrenched in my father’s memory.
“There is it,” said Helena. She nodded in the direction.
“Oh wow,” I said, somewhat shocked.
It was a stark contrast to all I had been observing just minutes earlier. A large mass of grey and black lay ahead of me. The azure of the sea was right there, surrounding it. But it was insignificant to the blackness of the earth we were driving on to.
Once parked, I stepped outside the car to experience a profane silence that was simply unnerving. The ocean was still pounding its surf. In all practicality, I’m sure it sounded the same as it did in the other parts of the island I had visited, but here, in this place of darkness, it all just “sounded” eerie.
I took a deep breath and slowly spun around, trying to take it all in, but it’s just too big, too large to absorb.
“This way,” said Helena. We walked down the long stone path leading to the underground interpretation center, with its various exhibition halls and an auditorium showing 3D movies about the formation of the islands: the ocean churning in fury, fire exploding from the sea. It was during the screening, that it hit me: OMG, this could happen again. Here. Now!
Coming from a part of the world where the worst natural disaster I’ve experienced has been an ice storm with its resulting 12-hour power outage, I felt a shiver of terror come over me. Traces of my claustrophobia kicked in, no doubt. I wanted to leave, to at least be outdoors and not underground in a place that was already covered in volcanic ash. Once the film was over I was out of there.
Back outside, I wandered through the lighthouse which was mostly buried after the eruption, but has since then been excavated to its present state. The admission fee provides access to the top of the lighthouse, with its spectacular views over the area. I passed on this option and chose instead to meander around. It is a dark, silent, chilling landscape.
I looked across the sea, towards the island of Graciosa. I tried to imagine what my father must have felt the day he walked home, seeing the smoke-filled sky on the other side of the water, unaware of what waited him. It was all too horrible to imagine.
I’m not sure why exactly I was driven to make a pilgrimage to this place. I just knew I had to come. And I’m glad I did. Somehow being there, seeing the darkness and absorbing the silence, made me feel closer to my father, his story, and to the brother I never knew.
For more of Maria’s articles, click here.