W.H. Bramble Airport, also known as Blackburne Airport, was a small international airport on the Eastern coast of the island of Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean. The island’s airport located near Spanish Point, was directly in the path of the main pyroclastic flow and was completely destroyed on the 25th of June 1997 by an eruption of the nearby Soufriere Hills volcano. The airport was named after Montserrat’s Chief Minister William Henry Bramble.
Montserrat is a small island, only 10 miles long by 7 miles wide, located in the Leeward Islands chain of the Lesser Antilles. It is only about 40 square miles in size, but due to recent volcanic activity it is actually increasing in size.
The Soufrière Hills volcano (Not to be confused with La Soufriere Volcano in St. Vincent and La Grande Soufrière on Guadeloupe) is an active, complex stratovolcano with many lava domes forming its summit, the volcano is named for the French word soufrière, meaning “sulphur outlet”.
There is a volcanic area located in the south of the island on Soufriere Hills called Chances Peak. Before 1995 it had been dormant for over 300 years. The volcano Soufrière Hills rumbled to life in 1995, it began to give off warning signs of an eruption (small earthquakes and eruptions of dust and ash). Once Chances Peak had woken up it then remained active for five years. By August of 1995 residents were evacuated when fragmented volcanic ash began to fall on the town; several months later the residents were allowed to return.
The most intense eruptions occurred on June 25th, 1997, that eventually destroyed the island’s capital Plymouth and buried it in 40 feet of mud. Soufrière Hills would continue to erupt into August, and eventually bury 80% of Plymouth under 4.6 ft. (1.4m) of hot ash, the town almost completely overcome by pyroclastic surges which destroyed the airport and docking facilities and made the southern half of the island uninhabitable.
Nineteen people were killed, as a small group of people chose to stay behind to watch over their crops, and once again Plymouth’s was small population of the island (11,000 people) was evacuated in 1995 to the north of Montserrat as well as to neighboring islands and the UK.
Montserrat has fallen victim to natural disasters multiple times in its history. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo would kill 21 people and destroy 90% of the island, causing an estimated $300M in damage. Despite the near total destruction of the island, they would receive aid and rebuild.
The pyroclastic flows would freeze everything in place, just as in Pompeii thousands of years earlier. The capital, Plymouth, has been covered in layers of ash and mud. Many homes and buildings have been destroyed, including the only hospital, the airport and many roads. Cars now sat embedded in rock; buildings were buried one-floor deep in permanent beds as hard as concrete.
Plymouth was by far the largest settlement on the island and had been the seat of government. In addition, all essential island shops and services had been located in Plymouth Montserrat. The primary source of income had been tourism, but with the airport destroyed and hotels buried in ash, the industry was decimated. Economically destitute and with all of their possessions ruined by the eruption, an estimated two thirds of the 13,000 on the island would evacuate and never return. The eruptions saw the local economy halted.
Rebuilding efforts began in earnest, bolstered by an annual £25 million contribution from England. Despite this, the island struggles to rebuild and tourism hasn’t recovered in Plymouth Montserrat. The government has prohibited anyone from entering the area affected by the pyroclastic flows. Even homes that were not overcome by the flows were forced to be abandoned.
If the roads to get to these homes weren’t destroyed, the plumbing and electrical infrastructure was.
The inability to rebuild in the area has left these otherwise sound structures to sit empty and rot. The hard pyroclastic flow buries the town in a concrete-like rock. Sewage pipes are severed. There is very little grass or soil and the town has a moon-like surface covered in rock and large boulders. Rebuilding would require large-scale demolition not available to Montserrat; heavy equipment and explosives would be needed just to break up the rock, and the now-infertile scorched earth beneath offers little incentive to try. Even if the island had the capability to rebuild, the cost to do so would be astronomical, further reducing the chance that Plymouth Montserrat will ever return.
The governments of the United Kingdom and Montserrat led the aid effort, including a £41 million package provided to the people of Montserrat; however, riots followed as the people protested that the British Government was not doing enough to aid relief. The riots followed a £10 million aid offer by International Development Secretary Claire Short, prompting the resignation of Bertrand Osborne, then Chief Minister of Montserrat after allegations of being too pro-British and not demanding a better offer.
The British destroyer HMS Liverpool was sent to the Caribbean, where her duties included patrols to crack down on drug smuggling, she took a large role in evacuating Montserrat’s population to other islands; this included Antigua and Barbuda (a 30-mile (48 km) distance, which was impossible by aircraft at the time due to the destruction of the Blackburne International airport), who warned they would not be able to cope with many more refugees. About 7,000 people, or two-thirds of the population, left Montserrat; 4,000 to the United Kingdom.
HMS Liverpool was formally decommissioned on 30 March 2012 and sent to be broken up at a Turkish scrapyard and this piece of Caribbean history is no more with us.
For several years after the disaster, Montserrat was only accessible by helicopters or boats, until July 2005, when the new Gerald’s Airport (now John A. Osborne Airport) was completed at the north end of the island. Bramble Airport had used the IATA airport code MNI, but this has now been transferred to the new airport.
John A. Osborne Airport (until 2008 called Gerald’s Airport) (IATA: MNI, ICAO: TRPG) is a small airport located near the village of Gerald’s on the island of Montserrat, a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean.
Gerald’s passenger terminal was dedicated in February 2005 by Anne, Princess Royal and the facility was formally opened on 11 July 2005. It features a 600-metre runway, a restaurant, modern air traffic control technology, immigration facilities, and is the only airport in the Caribbean with a public tunnel under its runway. The total cost of construction was approximately US$18.5 million.
The completion of Gerald’s Airport allowed for the resumption of regular commercial airline service to Montserrat for the first time since 1997, when W. H. Bramble Airport, was destroyed by an eruption of the nearby Soufrière Hills volcano. Between 1997 and 2005, Montserrat had been accessible only by helicopters or boats.
The airport’s name was changed in July 2008 to honor John Osborne, long-standing Chief Minister of Montserrat.
Darrell Lou-Hing is a retired pilot and avid aviation history buff
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