Krakatoa, a volcanic nightmare

Posted in Disasters, Famous news stories, Historical articles, Mystery on Monday, 13 June 2011

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This edited article about a premonition of Krakatoa’s eruption originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 966 published on 13 September 1980.

Krakatoa, picture, image, illustration

A tsunami following the eruption of Krakatoa, by Severino Baraldi

His nightmare vision of a volcanic eruption was so real that Edward Samson was able to write about it in startling detail – and he got the sack when it was published!

It was in the early hours of the morning when Edward Samson, the night news editor of the Boston Globe, finally put his newspaper to Press. Tired and hungry, he prepared to go to the nearby Press Club for his usual combination of late supper and early breakfast. But, for once, sleep overcame him and he dozed off still at his desk.

However, no sooner had he got to sleep than he woke up soaked with sweat and with a feeling of panic and horror. He had just had a short but vivid and terrifying dream in which he saw a mighty volcano erupt on an island in the East Indies.

To his amazement, he discovered that he knew the name of the island – although, to the best of his memory, he had never heard it before. The disaster spot was Krakatoa, a volcanic island in the Straits of Sunda, halfway between Java and Sumatra, and it seemed to Samson that the island was destroyed in an avalanche of boulders and red-hot lava.

The people of the island – a mixture of Asiatics and European settlers – were burned to death in the holocaust as the volcanic rock and ash shot high into the air. Samson sat shuddering as he recalled seeing the lava and rocks spewing upwards.

“They exploded one after another like cannons going off at a military display,” he wrote afterwards. “Underwater explosions churned up the surrounding water and raised its temperature to seventy degrees.”

“Roads became blocked;” he went on, “ships were crushed like matchwood; bridges collapsed; rivers flooded; and people, thousands of them, fled before the seething flow of lava.”

In a desperate effort to calm himself, Samson rushed across the deserted newsroom and ducked his head in a fire-bucket. But when he emerged, his hair and face dripping with water, the vivid scene of death and devastation was still in his mind.

“I could still hear the screams of fear,” he recorded, “still see the natives being squashed and burned to death, with the wreckage of their homes around them. That was when I knew my dream was more than just a sleep fantasy.

“I had no doubt that I was receiving news by some occult wire service, as it were, and that it was my duty as a newspaperman to write the story for my paper. It would be the scoop of the decade, if not the century, and I knew that such an opportunity might never come to me again.”

So, at around 3 a.m. on Monday, 27th August, 1883, Samson returned to his desk and feverishly typed out his account of what was later called “the greatest explosion on Earth”. Although he had no hard facts about the death toll, or the number of homes and villages destroyed, he composed a graphic, seemingly first-hand account of the disaster.

He left the completed story on the day news editor’s desk and at last went home to bed. He was still asleep when a special edition of the Globe went on sale later that day. It carried his dramatic version of the eruption at Krakatoa and the story was picked up by news agencies throughout America.

At noon, Samson was summoned to his office and asked by the editor of the Globe to write a follow-up to his exclusive story. And it was then that Samson hesitantly admitted that the whole thing had been a dream, a nightmare. He was fired on the spot and a retraction was prepared admitting that the main front page story had been a “mistake”.

But before the type could be set, reports of an actual eruption at Krakatoa came over the wires. It transpired that the volcano had been active for some 36 hours beforehand and had eventually erupted at 10 a.m. that morning – about seven hours after Samson had experienced his view of the future. Indeed, a whole chain of minor volcanoes had also exploded and the noise could be heard up to 3,000 miles away.

For the rest of that day Samson and his colleagues were inundated by scientific and personal accounts of the disaster. From Australasia and South America came reports of blue, green and copper-coloured suns. Sunsets in Hawaii and Japan were described as blood red. A huge wall of water tore through the Sunda Straits at almost 400 mph (640km/h).

A hundred miles from the centre of the disturbance, at Djakarta, the capital of Indonesia, the sky was black. Krakatoa was then part of the Dutch East Indies, and a Dutch naval officer, Captain van Doorn, later stated that the northern part of the island had completely disappeared.

“Where land was before, there is now no bottom to be found,” he said. “At least we could not fathom it with lines 200 fathoms long . . . Only here and there a slight trace of melted volcanic matter was to be seen . . . What remains of the volcano is covered with a greyish-yellow substance, full of cracks and splits, from which steam is continually coming out.”

Still the facts came in. Almost 37,000 people had lost their lives in the tragedy. More than 160 villages had been totally destroyed and a further 130 had been badly damaged. Life vanished from the once green and fertile island, and it did not return – in insect, bird or animal form – until some 10 years later.

Edward Samson was reinstated on the Globe minutes after his extraordinary scoop had been belatedly confirmed. The paper’s researchers discovered that the last time Krakatoa had erupted was at the beginning of the 12th century.

But there was one more startling revelation to come. In his dream, Samson said he had heard a strange word repeated over and over again. The word was “pralape”, and the journalist swore that he had never heard it – or even read it – before. Again the researchers went to work examining historical records and later reported just what the word meant.

Pralape was the ancient native name for Krakatoa, and it had been out of use for at least 200 years. To Samson, this was the final proof that he had been given what he afterwards called “a peep into the future, which is every newspaperman’s secret hope – even if it only happens to him once in his career.”

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