The combination of an earthquake and a volcanic eruption at El Chichon in southern Mexico converts a hill into a crater, kills thousands of people and destroys acres of farmland on this day in 1982. The eruptions, which continued for over a week, caught many of the area residents unaware and unprepared.
For most of the residents living in the shadow of El Chichon (also known as Chinhonal), the 4,500-foot mountain seemed to pose no danger. Because its last eruption was 130 years earlier and minor, most people ignored its potential for destruction and enjoyed the fertile soil its volcanic past provided. However, late in 1981, two geologists, intrigued by hot springs and steaming gaps in the earth near the volcano, did an investigation that revealed increased seismic activity and the possibility of a major eruption of the volcano. Unfortunately, their report was ignored.
Area residents also failed to pay attention when the ground began shaking on the night of March 28. But at 5:15 a.m. the following morning, no one could miss the combination earthquake and eruption that exploded the mountain. Ash was sent flying 60,000 feet in the air. About 150 people were killed when their roofs collapsed under raining volcanic debris. Two days later, ash from the eruption fell in Austin, Texas, many hundreds of miles to the north.
Most of the approximately 2,000 people killed by the eruption died from exposure to the pyroclastic flow, a volatile mix of hot particles and gas. El Chichon lost its entire top, leaving only a large crater 1,000 feet deep and, at less than 700 feet high, shorter than the surrounding hills. Two more major eruptions occurred on April 3 and 4. In these, the debris was sent so high that it came down as virtual landslide on the surrounding villages. Trees and buildings were no match for the dirt and rocks. The debris also blocked streams, causing flooding in the area. Nine entire villages were destroyed and more than 100 square miles of farmland were unusable for years.
Overall, the energy released by the eruptions, which were similar in scope to the Mount St. Helens eruptions in Washington in 1980, was the equivalent of 8,000 one-kiloton atomic bombs.