Troops ready to roll in if volcano blows

Fears in Montserrat: UK forces help keep colony functioning as thousands wait nervously for eruption


Under the volcano, Chris Taylor is playing patience. The 24-year-old Royal Marines' Lance- Corporal does not glance up at Chance's Peak, the mist-shrouded 3,000ft volcano behind him. But he is well aware that it could interrupt his private card game rather sharpish.

Lance-Corporal Taylor and Petty Officer Rob Smith were alone on the front line yesterday, keeping this Caribbean island's only power plant running to ensure electricity, phones and water to the few thousand residents who have fled to the north. The local electricity workers abandoned the plant on Wednesday after Chance's Peak and two other volcanoes in the Soufriere range spewed ash and gas and threatened to engulf the island capital of Plymouth at any moment.

Outside the Monlec (Montserrat Electricity) plant, Chris and Rob had two cars waiting, facing downhill, keys in the ignition. It is not as though there was anyone around to steal them.

"We've had two alarms so far this morning," said Rob, obviously glad to see a British reporter in what was otherwise a ghost town.

"The scientists in the safe zone detected two tremors on their seismographs. They told the Marines and the Marines called us. We were ready to rock 'n' roll but 30 seconds later they called the alarm off. But if a tremor lasts for two minutes, we're out of here. That's our orders."

"We reckon that lava would travel at 60 miles an hour," said Chris. "And we'd obviously be the first to know. We've been practising getting out of here but let's face it, 60 miles an hour is awfully fast." A quick glance at his small Japanese saloon car told the rest of the story.

"Our destination would be the golf course," said Chris. "We reckon we could be there in five minutes up the 'motorway'." He wasn't talking about getting in a few practice swings. The Montserrat golf course, tucked beneath Happy Hill, is the first area north of what has become the "safety line".

What the locals call the "motorway" is a narrow, twisting mountain road between abandoned Plymouth and the village known as Old Town, about three miles north as the crow flies.

Chris Taylor and Rob Smith were two quiet British heroes yesterday, helping maintain some sort of normality on an island traumatised by a series of recent volcanic eruptions and the fear that at least half the island could be wiped out. They were backed up by Rob's mates from the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Southampton, anchored offshore, and Chris's fellow Marines from 42 Commando out of the original Plymouth.

"We'd wind up the siren," said Rob, pointing to a grey antique outside the power plant's office door. "Then we're gone." He and Petty Officer Duane Farmer who is doing the night shift, had an hour to learn how to keep the power plant's two diesel engines going before its workers "got the hell out of Dodge".

Down in Plymouth port, usually bustling with tourists, only stray dogs and cats wandered the streets yesterday. Except, that is, for Franklin Howe, a 29-year-old stonemason and Bob Marley look-alike who sat sipping a can of Tennent's Extra outside the boarded-up Seaman's Choice bar.

He appeared to be the only person in town. Police had tried to move him out but he had given them the slip and come back. He was staring at the stonework on the port walls which he said he had done himself. How he had got the beer he would not say.

Scientists monitoring the Soufriere Hills said Chance's Peak, Castle Peak and a third unnamed volcano were still active and that the chances of a major eruption were still high. Thousands of tourists and many of Montserrat's 10,000 residents have left to nearby Antigua or other islands.

At Paradise Estate, on Chance's Peak's northern slope, was John Chambers, a health department official who had risked the trip to gather vegetables for refugees living in the safe zone. "It looks so harmless, so benign," he said, gazing up at the volcano, its upper reaches caked in grey from erupted ash.

In the village of Gerald's Bottom, in the island's northern extreme, several hundred refugees were further traumatised on Thursday night when storm winds, possibly the prelude to Hurricane Iris, swept away military tents set up by British soldiers. Lieutenant Rupert Lockwood of the Irish Guards secured the tents on the village cricket pitch.

The Irish Guards have had a special relationship with this island, first inhabited by Irish Catholics in the 17th century, or years training the Montserrat Defence Force in everything from first aid and traffic direction to riot control.