10 rescued after eruption in Aleutians

OKMOK VOLCANO: Ash cloud rises 45,000 feet, disrupts air traffic.

July 14, 2008 

Everything seemed perfectly normal Saturday morning on Umnak Island. Until the thunder started.

Except the thunder wasn't thunder, it was the rumbling of an erupting Okmok volcano -- and it was so loud, the handful of people living at the base of the volcano knew they had to act quickly.

"We heard something that sounded like thunder and went outside and right away realized it wasn't thunder. It sounded like huge rocks rolling or something," said Lonnie Kennedy, who lives with his family and a few ranch hands at a private cattle ranch six miles from the 3,500-foot volcano.

"I told everyone it sounds like the volcano is blowing up and we need a plan to get out of here."

Kennedy called the Coast Guard. Then he fired up his helicopter and began to ferry people six miles away to Unalaska Island. Carrying two passengers at a time, he was able to make four trips before the volcanic ash got too thick to safely fly.

"You could see no daylight in any direction. It was pitch black," he said. "I was scared."

The heavy ash forced Kennedy to leave two people behind -- his son, Ross, and a ranch hand. They were rescued by a fishing boat.

The vessel, the Tara Gaila, picked up the two men left on Umnak and then the ones who'd escaped to Unalaska. It carried them about 65 miles to Dutch Harbor, where they were staying at a hotel on Sunday.

Kennedy, 46, first ferried his daughter-in-law Shurery and an infant, Baily, to the island across Umnak Pass where the family has a cabin.

Next, he got two of his children, 9-year-old Amy and 4-year-old Parker. After that it was wife, Susan, and 16-year-old daughter Lily.

Kennedy was able to get one of the ranch hands next but that's when the ash got too thick to run the helicopter. In the meantime, the Tara Gaila arrived.

When the Coast Guard got the call for help Saturday, it sent two cutters to Umnak Island, located in the western Aleutians about 860 miles southwest of Anchorage, but recalled them after the Tara Gaila responded. It also sent a helicopter but it had to land in Dutch Harbor because of damage being done by the volcanic ash.

The Okmok caldera, which consists of a 6-mile-wide circular crater about 1,600 feet deep, erupted with little warning Saturday morning, just hours after seismologists at the Alaska Volcano Center began detecting a series of small tremors.

The explosion flung a large ash plume into the sky.

Kennedy, his family and the two ranch hands were at Fort Glenn, a private cattle ranch six miles south of the volcano. The ranch residents managed to call military police on Kodiak Island using a satellite phone before losing their connection.

The volcano erupted at 11:43 a.m. and reached peak activity about two hours later, said Cyrus Read, a geophysicist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory, which has several seismic stations on the Okmok caldera. The Okmok caldera contains more than a dozen volcanic cones. Scientists weren't sure which cone exploded Saturday.

One of the observatory's seismic stations that was placed at the rim of the volcano likely was destroyed in the explosion, Read said. Several others stations were functioning Sunday.

"It continues at this time," Read said. "It is a pretty solid plume."

Ash was expected to continue drifting south. The ash cloud was estimated at 45,000 feet on Sunday and posed a risk to aircraft.

PenAir, which serves Southwest Alaska, said it was forced to cancel two flights between Dutch Harbor and Anchorage on Saturday but things had returned to normal on Sunday.

The last time the volcano -- formed about 2,000 years ago -- erupted was in 1997. It was active for eight months, Read said. But he said there was no way of knowing how long the eruption would last this time.

Kennedy, who grew up in Cordes Junction, Ariz., said he plans to go back to the island with his family as soon as it is safe.

"I've always been a cowboy all my life," he said. "It doesn't bother me. It probably won't blow up again for a long time."

Daily News reporter Beth Bragg contributed to this story.

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