Two U.S. Fish & Wildlife biologists were rescued from volcanic Kasatochi Island in the Aleutians today shortly before an eruption sent an ash plume 35,000 feet in the air.
The biologists, who were studying birds, have not been identified, but seismologists said they narrowly escaped burning flows of gas, steam and ash that probably enveloped the mile-wide island.
"If they had been there, they certainly could have died," said Stephanie Prejean, seismologist with U.S. Geological Survey's Alaska Volcano Observatory.
Kasatochi is the third Aleutian volcano currently rumbling. Okmok began erupting July 12. Mount Cleveland erupted on July 21.
The biologists were due to be taken from the island Wednesday, but a helicopter that was going to pick them up had mechanical problems, and a Fish & Wildlife boat was too far away. A call to fishermen in the area didn't immediately drum up a response.
Early this afternoon, someone from Adak was able to reach them.
As they waited, the shaking on the island grew increasingly intense, and they began to smell sulfur gas, a sign of an impending eruption, Prejean said. The biologists called for help yesterday.
"Things were really nip and tuck this morning. The island went into 20 minutes of shaking," said Poppy Benson of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge in Homer
Kasatochi's plume is causing an air travel advisory and will dump ash on the neighboring community of Adak, Prejean said. Scientists have not been monitoring the volcano, and there's no record of when it last erupted, she said.