Krakatoa - Fatal Pyroclastic Surge

After Krakatoa's stupendous explosion - on the 27th of August, 1883 - the volcano spewed out another monstrous pyroclastic flow.  Johanna Beyernick describes it in her lengthy account.  The following are excerpts from her story:

Someone burst in shouting "Shut the doors, shut the doors!" Suddenly it was pitch dark. The last thing I saw was the ash being pushed up through the cracks in the floorboards, like a fountain.

I turned to my husband and heard him say in despair, "Where is the knife? The knife on the table. I will cut all our wrists and then we shall be sooner released from our suffering."

The knife could not be found. I felt a heavy pressure, throwing me to the ground. Then it seemed as if all the air was being sucked away and I could not breathe. Large lumps cluttered down on my head, my back and my arms. Each lump was larger than the others. I could not stand.

I don’t think I lost consciousness for I heard the natives praying and crying "Allah il Allah!"

I felt people rolling over me. I was kicked and felt a foot on part of my body. No sound came from my husband or children. Only part of my brain could have been working for I didn't realize I had been burnt and everything which came in contact with me was hot ash, mixed with moisture. I remember thinking, "I want to get up and go outside." But I could not. My back was powerless.

After much effort I did finally manage to get to my feet, but I could not straighten my back or neck. I felt as if a heavy iron chain was fastened around my neck and was pulling me downward.

Propping my hands on my knees, I tottered, doubled up, to the door. I knew it was in the corner. It was stuck fast. I fell to my knees in the ash.

Later I noticed that the door was ajar and I forced myself through the opening. I looked for the stairs. I tripped and fell. I realized the ash was hot and I tried to protect my face with my hands. The hot bite of the pumice pricked like needles.

My long hair, which reached to my knees, usually knotted into a tight bun, was loose.

Without thinking I walked hopefully forward. Had I been in my right mind I would have understood what a dangerous thing it was to do, to leave the vicinity of that house and plunge into the hellish darkness.

Then came sudden, terrifying stillness. When I had walked about 15 paces, still in my doubled-up position, I stubbed my toe on something very peculiar. I ran up against large and small branches and did not even think of avoiding them. I entangled myself more and more in that nightmare of branches, all entirely stripped of leaves.

My hair got caught up, and each time with a twist of the head I managed to free myself. Then something got hooked into my finger and hurt. I noticed for the first time that my skin was hanging off everywhere, thick and moist from the ash stuck to it. Thinking it must be dirty, I wanted to pull bits of skin off, but that was still more painful. My tired brain could not make out what it was. I did not know I had been burned. Worn out, I leaned against a tree.

By this time - once again - Mrs. Beyernick was not sure whether she was dead or alive.  Then she heard something.  Was someone calling for her?

Was it imagination or did I hear something after all? I listened and heard, first dampened and then more clearly, someone shouting and screaming for me. Everything was once more clear in my mind. I recognized my husband’s voice calling me and shouting. Why was I dead and the rest of them still alive?

I heard Tojaka [Willem's clerk] say to him, "Master, be calm, the children are still alive."

I tried to shout, and at last succeeded in calling "I am alive." I shouted loud and long, "I’m coming! I’m coming!" I couldn't find the way back, and ran in the opposite direction. But when I realized that my husband's voice got further and further away, I turned round again. Had I gone any further, I would have fallen into a ravine we discovered later.

When Willem found Johanna, he thought that death might provide their escape from the horrendous ordeal:  "Let us stay here and die together," he cried.

The couple disagreed.
"No, we shall be rescued and taken to hospital in Batavia [Jakarta]," Johanna said, hopefully.

"Who knows whether Batavia still exists," Willem worried - with good reason.

The family's ayah gave Johanna her youngest child - 14-month-old Willem.  She could tell the baby was thirsty and tried to feed him.  It was too late for the baby, however. He died in his mother's arms.
"Thank God this child is at least put out of his agony," Johanna told the ayah.  The grief-stricken mother could not even cry. 

She tried to say:  "Wrap the child in a blanket and lay it on the bed," but she couldn't speak.  Hot ash, in her throat, caused both a tremendous thirst and an inability to speak.

The day remained dark, because of the volcano's impact:

There was still deep darkness. We couldn't light a fire, as matches were put out almost immediately. At last the head boy, the only remaining male servant, managed to start a small fire, and we began to hear signs of life from the people in the village, some of whom came to the light, asking for water. They were crazy from thirst and anxiety, so that it began to be dangerous for us. My husband said, "I have no weapons, but there is an axe behind the bed." The house boy fetched it. When my husband held it he said, "I cannot do anything with it. I have lost the use of my hand."
"Then give it to me," I said and clutched the axe. I was suddenly furious that my children's lives depended on it. I would have cut down the first person to stand in my way. When three men came toward the hut, the house boy advised us to put out the fire, as one of them was carrying a kris.
We quickly threw ash on the fire and again we were in darkness. I don't know how long we had been sitting when we saw people approaching, carrying torches. There must have been 30 of them. They shouted, "Sir, if you are still alive, come with us. We must leave because soon there will be more fire."
"From whence?" asked my husband.
"From Radja Bassa — look," they cried. We looked up and saw a ray of greenish light on the mountain.
"Wait for us, we'll get ready," said my husband.

The family left, with the others.  They thought another volcano was about to join Krakatoa's seemingly endless eruptions.

Clip from the BBC production Krakatoa:  The Last Days.  The scene recreates a devastating, fatality-causing pyroclastic surge which followed Krakatoa's fourth eruption on August 27, 1883.

See, also:

Last Days of Krakatoa

Krakatoa - Ash Fall

Krakatoa - Loudest Sound in Recorded History

Krakatoa - Deadly Tsunami

Krakatoa - Loss of the Fourth Point Lighthouse

Krakatoa - After the Disaster

Media Credits

Clip from the BBC production, Krakatoa: The Last Days.  Copyright, BBC, all rights reserved.  Clip provided here as fair use for educational purposes and to acquaint new viewers with the program.  Online via BBC's Channel at YouTube.  

Written by:    

Colin Heber-Percy
Michael Olmert
Lyall B. Watson

Sam Miller


Alan Eyres
Greg Smith

Rupert Penry-Jones
Olivia Williams
Kevin McMonagle
Originally aired on BBC One - May 7, 2006

Excerpts from Johanna Beyerinck's 19th-century account, quoted by Rupert Furneaux in Krakatoa, published in 1964, online, courtesy Google Books.  In order, above, the three different pages begin at the following pages:

1st passage, pages 106-107

2nd passage, page 129

3rd passage, page 130


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Krakatoa - Fatal Pyroclastic Surge" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. May 30, 2020.
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