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The booms that shook and reshaped the Westman Islands

IF you don't like the weather in Iceland, just wait a minute. And if you don't like the landscape, wait two. Take the Westman Islands, for instance. This cluster of 15 little islands sticks out from the southern coast of Iceland like a bunch of barnacles. There were only 14 of them until, back in 1964, an underwater eruption and a burst of lava gave birth to the island of Surtsey. Scientists flocked to the newly hatched land to observe it, as bits of primal vegetation, insect, and bird life appeared and staked their claim on the new isle.

Surtsey was the first island in these waters that managed to push its way through and survive the sea in the last 10,000 to 15,000 years.

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From Heimaey, the largest and only inhabited island in the chain, people watched from the comfortable distance of their little fishing village as their new neighbor blew up and grew up. They were curious but not concerned. After all, it had been 5,000 years since their six-square-mile land had exhibited such behavior. And no one was even there at the time.

Then in the early hours of Jan. 23, 1973, as the town slept, the cork popped!

Without warning, a small crack appeared in the old dormant volcano cone of Helgafell. In a matter of minutes the crack grew to the length of a mile, and red molten lava began to spit and drool from the fissure. Fire alarms and sirens wakened the sleeping village of 5,500 people.

Spectacular pictures of the event made the front page of next day's newspapers throughout the world.

There was chaos, to be sure, but the islanders with typical stolid calmness packed what they could and headed for the harbor. Most boarded the fishing fleet and headed for the mainland. No one was forced to leave. It was simply suggested for safety's sake. Miraculously, the only casualty was a horse.

There was a rather unfortunate mix-up at a nursing home. One eager volunteer rushed in after the elderly residents were evacuated and dumped all the false teeth he could find into a sack. It took days to sort out the smiles.

By June, after things settled down and began to cool off, most of the residents returned undaunted. These sturdy northerners were not going to let a little volcanic action halt their fish business.

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But there was a bit of cleaning up to do. Seven million tons of ash and pumice had been dumped on their town. For four years they shoveled and plowed. Everyone pitched in. Schoolchildren helped regreen the land by sewing grass seed on the new soil.

The beautiful protected port here is the nerve center of the fishing fleet, and the busiest, most important harbor in all of Iceland. During the eruption, residents were more concerned about their port than anything else. Houses could be rebuilt. There was great concern that the flow would close off the port as lava moved down into the sea.

Firemen worked energetically to head off the molten rock by hosing it with icy sea water. The end result was a deeper and more protected port than before.

Fuel bills are lower, too. Houses previously heated by expensive imported oil could now be warmed by steam heat, piped in from the still-smoldering ash. Scientists figure the subterranean heat will be there to tap for another 10 years or so.

And thrifty, enterprising Icelanders even used the heated ground to bake bread.

``We can still do it, too,'' announced a wiry waitress at a local restaurant. ``Just dig a hole about two feet down, put your dough in a tin pan, stick it in the hole, and in 14 to 16 hours you've got your bread.'' Westman Islanders are a patient people.

And they're sensitive as well. A kindergarten has been built next to the new nursing home ``so the youngsters can learn from and respect older people, and it's good for the elderly to have the children nearby,'' I was told.

And they're slightly reckless. One major sport here is swinging off the cliffs holding on to a rope.

Another byproduct of the eruption is the lava itself. Crushed and used as building material, it has been a boon to this treeless land.

Tourism, too, has grown. Today, curious off-islanders roam the still-steaming land in awe. Before the volcanic explosion, tourism leveled out at about 2,000. In 1986 it was up to 10,000.

Our guide, Pall Helgason, bused us up and down the volcano on roads plowed through the ash. About 200 homes lay buried beneath us. An occasional roof, chimney, or window peeks rather ghoulishly through gaps in the black lava.

We stopped to gather sulfur-tinted lava and explore the coffee-grounds-like land.

``There's a nice one,'' Mr. Helgason said with a wink, gesturing to a large pink and yellow hunk of lava.

``Yipes,'' one fellow howled, dropping it like a hot potato - a victim of Helgason's harmless joke.

``And if you think that's hot, it's 2,000 degrees 20 feet below,'' Helgason added.

We drove among columns of lava that stood like grotesque totem poles. Some are seen as strange caricatures and given names by local residents.

Moss is slowly making its way up the volcano. Attracted by warm, moist soil, it is carpeting acres of the area, giving a soft, healing, velvety green calmness to the once-violent land.

Below the volcano lies the colorful village. Pretty houses in reds, greens, and yellows, all bunched up by the harbor, stand in lovely contrast against dark, mountainous islands. Horses and sheep graze again among the valleys and hills.

And birds. Everywhere, birds. A cluster of tiny, steep islands that nearly touch Heimaey are high-rise aviaries teeming with screaming, whistling, cackling birds. Twenty-nine species numbering an estimated 40 million nest here in summer: puffin, gannet, fulmar, kittiwake, razorbill, black guillemot, gulls, and more.

The puffins are a dinner staple here. Each island holds a large white house rented to a few select birders who trap puffins by the thousands during the month-long hunting season. The dark meat is slightly gamey, tender, and quite delicious. And always a welcome change from the ubiquitous fish dishes.

A strange thing occurs as young chicks leave their nest. Attracted by bright lights of the ``big city,'' they fly into the village streets. Lacking strength to take off, they create havoc with traffic. Placed in boxes, the birds are taken home and released the next morning by throwing them into the air over a promontory.

A kindly gesture, but still no guarantee they won't end up on the dining room table next year!

If you go

Daily flights from Reykjavik to Heimaey are available, weather permitting. They include a guided bus tour by Helgason or his son. Lunch is additional. The cost during high season, from June to August, starts at $138. If you can spend more time on little Heimaey - and if the plane can't take off, you will have extra time - there are hiking tours, fishing and boat trips as well.

Make your reservations for Heimaey well in advance. For information call or write Icelandair, 360 West 31st St., New York, NY 10001, telephone (212) 967-8888.

The Iceland Tourist Board, 655 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017, (212) 949-2333, will provide information on other travel options in Iceland.

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