Everyone believed that the beautifully shaped volcano of Helgafell, situated in the centre of Heimaey was long extinct. It had certainly not erupted for 5000 years. In spite of the fact that the newly formed island of Surtsey had erupted in full view of the islanders for 4 years (1963-1967), it took everyone by surprise when an almost two kilometre long fracture opened on the east of the island just efter midnight on 23rd January 1973, 200 metres from the nearest houses. Had the fracture opened 1500 metres further west, it would have been in the centre of the town of 5.300 people and several hundred lives would have been certainly lost. Luckily the wind blew the eruption cloud away from the town. The fishing fleet was in harbour that night following bad weather the previous day and as a result it was possible to move evryone to the mainland in a matter of hours, without any loss of life.
During the following weeks attempts were made to save cars, personal belongings and industrial machinery in a race against time with the constant production of lava and ash. The eruption lasted for five months. Almost half of the houses on the island were either buried under the lava or were damaged by ash.
Cleaning up of what was left of the town began immediately the eruption had ceased and took almost two years. Bit by bit the people returned and within ten years the population had reached its previous level. Today the Westmann Islands are once again one of the most productive and thriving fishing centres in Iceland and a umgjörðxxxxx for a unique way of life where many old traditions are honoured and kept alive.
Gunnlaugur Ástgeirsson, history teacher MH