John Shepherd of Lancaster University doesn't look much like an Indiana Jones. But the bespectacled, 56-year-old physicist from Warrington remained cool as a cucumber yesterday as he stood on the outside rim of a volcanic crater which could blow at any minute.
For Dr Shepherd and his Royal Marines escorts in an otherwise deserted zone, it was an unenviable game of Russian roulette. But their mission was a noble one: to protect the lives of 8,000 people living in the shadow of Montserrat's rumbling Soufriere Hills volcano.
A noted vulcanologist, Dr Shepherd was dispatched urgently by the Foreign Office at the weekend to set up a laser-guided measuring device. This, it is hoped, might give vital warning of an eruption which could destroy most of this tropical island.
He was driven from the so-called "safe zone" by Major Steven Bruce of the Marines, through the ghost town that is the evacuated capital, Plymouth, and up the Soufriere foothills to the crater's edge.
"If this one blows, it would be what we call a pyroclastic eruption," Dr Shepherd told three British reporters who had followed him up the volcano's slopes. "As any of your readers will know, having studied Greek, that means 'broken by fire'. It wouldn't be molten lava, like Etna. Volcanic rock, anything from ash to boulders with a temperature of around 800C, would explode upwards, while gas would engulf the island.
"I defer to the scientists who have been here longer and are doing a wonderful job, but personally I think the most likely thing is that it keeps on like this, rumbling and spewing ash and steam for a long time, maybe even a few years. The next most likely scenario is what we call a dome building up. The best way to imagine that is to think of squeezing a toothpaste tube, with the toothpaste oozing out, forming a bulge on the edge but not spurting out."
Dr Shepherd's assessment tallied with that of the island's Governor, Frank Savage, who yesterday shot down reports that there was an 80-per- cent probability of a major eruption. "Ongoing unrest could result in a magmatic [molten rock] eruption in the near future, but the probability of a major eruption is considered not to be high," he said.
Mr Savage conceded that there was some "grumbling" among Montserratians about having to abandon their homes, businesses or livestock in Plymouth, but estimated that it might be 10 more days before he would stand the island down from the present "red alert" and allow them to return home.
Hundreds of tourists, American medical students and some 2,000 of Montserrat's 10,000 residents have left the island since the volcano began rumbling near the 3,000-ft Chance's Peak more than a month ago. The rest have evacuated the southern half of the island, including Plymouth, and are living with friends or on camp-beds in churches, schools or community centres in the northern half. They are still mostly within sight of the volcanic peak, and remain vulnerable if a major eruption brings a rain of volcanic rock, ash and gas.
The most popular song on the local radio over the last few days has been "Volcano" by Jimmy Buffett, in which he admits: "I don't know where I'm gonna go when the volcano blow." Buffett recorded the song here in 1979.
Tropical storm Iris, which closed Montserrat's airport and interrupted evacuation flights yesterday, also prevented Dr Shepherd from setting up his electronic distance-measuring device (EDM), but he was hoping to return today. A group of Royal Marines was planning to hike to the crater's rim, stop at a spot chosen by Dr Shepherd via walkie-talkie, bolt down three reflectors, each no bigger than the top of a baked-bean can, and paint a large white cross. The cross will be a target at which Dr Shepherd, standing about half a mile away, will fire a laser beam to tell him, based on distance and angle, whether the crater is bulging. Detecting any bulge is what could save the islanders' lives, giving enough warning for an evacuation.
Dr Shepherd might have beaten the tropical storm, which killed one man in Martinique yesterday before heading toward the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, but BWIA first flew the suitcase containing his device to Trinidad.
The Marines are only too aware that if the volcano blows while they are up there, in the words of one, "we're dead meat - archaeologists will probably discover our bootprints a couple of thousand years from now and wonder what kind of species we were".