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A movie, the Rabaul catastrophe & some thoughts on the past

The 1994 eruptionRAYMOND SIGIMET

I have just watched the Hollywood action movie San Andreas starring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson who happens to play a character named Ray, my name.

The movie brought back memories of the Rabaul volcanic eruption that occurred on the morning of 19 September 1994, an event I witnessed first-hand.

The eruption resulted in the devastation and destruction of the once picturesque Pacific town, Rabaul, the only town in the world built in a volcanic caldera.

Prior to the eruption, a number of strong earthquakes and tremors were felt in and around Rabaul. The volcanological observatory issued a warning of imminent threat of eruption resulting in the early evacuation of people and minimal casualties.

Guria, the Tok Pisin word for earthquake, comes from the Kuanua language, the vernacular of the Tolai people of East New Britain.

East New Britain is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity. Rabaul has been destroyed twice. The first time in 1937 when Mount Tavurvur (Matupit) erupted. An earlier eruption in 1878 saw the birth of a new volcano called Mount Karavia (Vulcan) located on the opposite side of the harbour.

Rabaul was rebuilt again prior to World War II and served as a base for the Japanese Imperial Army and was the district centre of the New Guinea islands before and after Independence.

But unfortunately it was destroyed again, much of it buried under tons of volcanic ash and debris, by the sudden and simultaneous eruptions of Mount Tavurvur and Mount Karavia in 1994. This eruption led to the relocation of the provincial capital to Kokopo.

The eruption occurred at a time when there was a strong north-westerly wind blowing resulting in the ash completely covering and laying waste to the town. The sheer weight of the ash caused most of the buildings and structures to cave in and collapse. Police and military stepped in and Rabaul became a no-go area for the height of this natural disaster.

Prehistorically, there were other eruptions. The major eruption that created the Rabaul caldera occurred 3,500 years ago and what is now Blanche Bay became flooded about 1,400 years ago.

Dwayne Johnson’s fictional character, Raymond, and his family witnessed firsthand the destruction and obliteration of their homes and two major cities along the California coast with the loss of countless lives. At the end of the movie, they were able to reconnect and rebuild what was destroyed and lost.

Putting fiction aside, this got me thinking what it was like during the volcanic eruption and subsequent destruction and devastation that created the Rabaul caldera those thousands of years ago. I believe no film could come close to capturing what happened then and how the people reacted to these life-changing events.

The families who lived there then had to deal with so much and they survived these major catastrophic events to continue a civilisation. Their experiences and survival instincts are now lost to time immemorial. They were heroes and heroines.


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Raymond Sigimet

Thank you Des for your comment. I believe your experience during the aftermath of this major disaster in PNG's recorded history may have had lasting effects and I feel for the those affected.

I would count you with the others who helped as a heroes for your involvement after this major natural event.

I learned about Mt Lamington in high school social science class. Its good to have someone who witnessed the event first hand communicating with me.

Unlike the Mt Lamington experience, there were very few fatalities during the Rabaul twin eruptions because of the early warning from the Observatory resulting in a mass exodus during the weekend prior to the eruption.

I believe my experience from the Rabaul eruptions cannot compare with yours.

Thank you once again Mr Martin for sharing your experience with me. God bless you.

Des Martin ML JP (Ex Kiap)

Raymond, The Mount Lamington eruption in Papua on 21 January 1951 was probably the greatest disaster to ever have occurred in the south west Pacific area killing as it did up to five thousand people. I was heavily involved in the aftermath.

A recent book "Fire Mountains of the Pacific" by volcanologist Dr Wally Johnson has an extensive chapter on the event.

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