Italy: Mount Etna

By SSgt N. H. North- Originally Published July 1992

Marines and sailors teamed up to battle a unique "enemy"-Italy's Mount Etna, Europe's most formidable and active volcano.

The Italian government requested the assistance of American forces on April 11, after lava flowing from the million-year-old mountain threatened Zefferana Etnea, a city of 7,000 located on the island of Sicily.

The Americans responded with helicopters from the Navy's Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HC) 4 and Seabee construction workers based at Naval Air Station, Sigonella. They also diverted elements of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, afloat in the Mediterranean, specifically Marine CH-53 Super Stallion helicopters from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 461, New River, N.C., assigned to Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 266 (a composite squadron off USS Inchon); and a Marine Helicopter Support Team (HST) embarked in USS Shreveport.

It was the first request of its kind, according to Navy Captain Mike Bruner, commander of NAS, Sigonella, who in turn asked for further assistance from the Commander, Sixth Fleet, who sent in the Marines.

"We requested American aid because they have the professional ability to do the work," said Italian minister of protection of civil defense, Nicola Capria, who visited the site.

Within hours, the helicopters and air crews from HMM-266, with the HST from MEU Service Support Group 2, were ashore with equipment and supplies.

The air station's operations department coordinated all U.S. air traffic, while the aircraft intermediate maintenance department assisted with aircraft maintenance, and the galley supplied food for U.S. forces who would be working on the mountain.

The plan called for the Super Stallions to lift and transport 7,000pound concrete traffic-barrier blocks to a vent on the side of the volcano and drop them into it. Engineers hoped the barriers would cause the molten lava to divert from its course, collect in pools and solidify. The HST would establish a base camp near a roadway on the reverse side of the volcano to serve as an "expeditionary landing field" and staging/ rigging area for the blocks.

The Seabees worked throughout the first night and trucked 200,000 lbs. of the behemoth concrete blocks to the windy, snow-swept base camp, located near a tiny ski resort nearly 7,000 feet up the side of Mount Etna. There they braved frostbite to construct steel sleighs which were to be dropped into the lava flow. HST Marines labored feverishly to prepare their unique cargo for transport the next day.

Lance Corporal M. W. Richards, with the HST, saw it as another challenge. He'd never had to rig concrete blocks for air delivery. "There was a lot of trial and error. We weren't sure exactly how much these things weighed or how they should be rigged to ride smoothly."

First Lieutenant Christopher A. Arantz, who led the HST, explained that he relied on his men's experience and ingenuity when posed with the plan. "Only a few of the men had ever worked with noncertified, nonstandard loads, so we started from scratch." After several sling configurations, they ended up using nylon cargo straps.

There wasn't a lot of time for experimentation. Somebody had already dubbed their efforts "Operation Hot Rock" and that hot lava was working its way closer to Zefferana.

It was at dawn that Arantz's men gave the thumbs-up to air crews to attempt the first lift.

The first Super Stallion, piloted by Major James G. Ross, who commanded the Marine detachment, was hooked up for the "bombing" mission on Mount Etna.

Ross positioned his massive helicopter over the blocks as HST Marines worked under the 175 mph rotor wash and blowing volcanic ash to hook Ross' bird.

Ross had been concerned about the load, but the Super Stallion picked up the block almost effortlessly and whisked it away to the drop zone. Ross had previous experience operating a Super Stallion over mountains, through "thin" air and dealing with low temperatures. However, the sudden change in temperatures once over the spewing smoke and acrid fumes surprised everybody.

"I couldn't believe the heat that was coming up from the lava which flowed like a river," said Cpl R. S. Knapik, the Super Stallion crew chief who peered through the aircraft's "hell hole" at the intended target.

Knapik and Ross worked in tandem and dropped the first "concrete bomb" into the lava. Knapik watched the block drop. Instead of it splashing into the lava and immediately sinking, Knapik noted with interest that the block momentarily floated, then settled. Moments later, the 7,000-lb. slab was swept away by the molten current.

"It was like the block didn't weigh anything," said Knapik.

The helicopters dropped five blocks in quick succession. Each was swallowed without causing the slightest pause or diversion in the flow of lava from its original course.

It was time for "Plan B." Scientists, engineers, military and civilians, as well as Italy's volcanologist Dr. Franco Barberi, devised a plan to encircle the perimeter of the vent with as many of the heavy traffic blocks as possible. In addition, the steel "launcher platform" and sled constructed by the Seabees would go into action. The idea was to stack several of the blocks on the sled and launch it into the vent. A giant chain and cable "net" would also be constructed and stretched over the vent.

The plan called for all the elements of this elaborate "stopper" to be connected by cables. Finally, the helicopters would lay 15,000-lb. concrete bases on the net. The theory was that after placing two or three of these massive slabs on the net, gravity would cause the blocks, sled and net to sink into the crater simultaneously, thus plugging the hole or at the least slowing the flow of lava moving toward Zefferana.

Truck convoys brought more blocks, steel, equipment and personnel up the winding roads from Sigonella. Marines and Seabees went back to work, rigging the blocks and constructing the other gear.

The plan was evaluated and reevaluated. "We knew what we had been doing was working," said Dr. Barberi. "Now we needed to continue the operation to ensure the safety of the town."

The battle against Mother Nature had become a challenge and nobody wanted to quit. This team effort was exemplified when the Navy added a Super Stallion helicopter from HC-4 to the relief effort after squadron maintenance crews worked around-the-clock for three days to reassemble an aircraft that had been dismantled for a routine biannual inspection.

Meanwhile, it was finally decided that, in addition to the massive amounts of concrete and steel which would plug the hole, explosive charges would be used farther up the mountain in an attempt to dislodge more rock and dump it into the lava flow.

There was just one problem and that was the weather.

Cold weather, rain and clouds made flying conditions marginal to begin with, according to Ross. "Over the vent, the winds sometimes shifted 180 degrees in a matter of seconds which with turbulence and wind shear put us at our operational limits."

There were a few days when air crews were granted a break when weather conditions gave them a window through which to drop two 15,000-lb. concrete slabs into the vent. However, the rushing magma swallowed the slabs with no noticeable effect.

Nine days had passed since the arrival of the Marines. Mount Etna was proving a worthy adversary. Fatigue and a sense of helplessness were showing in the faces of people involved.

LCpl Richards shook his head and summed it up, "We were ready to do our job. If the weather would have just given us a chance, I knew we could beat the volcano."

His wish was granted around midmorning of the ninth day. There was a clearing over the mountain and helicopters ferried more than 20 blocks of concrete to the vent, dropping them precisely around its perimeter. Next followed the sled assembly.

This was a dicey job at best because the sled was broad, flat and heavy (exact weights were unknown).

"Picking up the nearly 7,000-pound blocks is similar to transporting a HUMVEE [vehicle]," explained Ross. "The 15,000-pound slabs are close to the weight of the M-198 howitzer, but the sled was unlike anything I had ever lifted. I wasn't sure how it would handle in the very changing winds around the mountain."

Indeed, Ross' first attempt was aborted. After the HST hooked up the sled assembly to his helicopter, the sled shifted and the welds holding the assembly together gave way. Ross eased the load back to ground.

In a quick conference with Arantz, the Seabees and Knapik, it was decided to transport the sled and platform separately. The weather was getting nasty again and ground crews worked in the cold and snow to hook up the platform to the Super Stallion. It worked, at least temporarily. The bird banked left and disappeared around the mountain. A few minutes later it was back, sans platform.

"The platform became a hazard to the aircraft when it was caught by a gust of wind and Knapik wisely got rid of the load," said Ross. "I don't think he'd been in that position before and it says a lot about his decision-making capabilities."

"The load was riding fine until we banked and the platform disappeared out of my view," said Knapik, explaining the dangers of a heavy external load swinging too freely and possibly striking the aircraft. "That's when I decided to 'pickle' the load."

Obviously the sled plan had to be scrapped. Another conference ensued and it was decided that the remaining blocks would be transported to the site and placed around the mouth of the vent. The net would be dropped off at the zone and put in place by Italian Marines working near the lava flow.

Working with H-53E Super Stallions from HC-4, the ferrying of blocks continued and by the end of the day, nearly 200,000 lbs. of concrete encircled the vent. Overhead, the weather became even nastier. Everyone with the exception of the engineers who worked to put the demolitions and net in place waited.

Again the weather cleared, just enough to allow the Super Stallions to become airborne. In a flurry of activity, they lifted the seven-and-ahalf ton slabs of concrete out to the net stretched over the river of lava.

Slab after slab was placed in the net (which engineers claimed would collapse under the weight of two slabs) but nothing gave. Finally, after all six slabs had been placed on the net, the Marine air crews "bombed" the vent with a few more concrete traffic blocks.

The Italians offered the "coup de grace" by setting off the demolitions farther up the mountain.

When the smoke cleared, Ross and his crew flew over to reconnoiter the situation. Capt Frederick M. Aten, co-pilot in Ross' bird, described what he saw. "The lava had pooled and spread out around the vent. Apparently there was some kind of blockage." The plan had worked.

It was a team effort against the forces of nature, which were only slightly altered.

"We were absolutely delighted," Capt Bruner said of the operation's success.

"It made me awfully proud to know that our military can do all these good things to help people," said Peter Secchia, America's ambassador to Italy, who also happens to be a former Marine.