Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Beneath the Ashes – Mt. Pinatubo

This is a story of a father, his two sons and the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century.

William Shernoff., a California attorney was reading about the explosions of Mt. Pinatubo in the western area of Luzon, Philippines during the week of June 9th, 1991. Rivers of lava were pouring down the mountainsides, burying villages and pursuing thousands of fleeing natives. Ash, debris and rocks were raining down on people many miles away from this long inert volcano. The U.S. leased, Clark Air Force Base, evacuated its 14,500 troops and residents permanently. The huge Base, badly damaged by volcanic debris, closed down.

Shernoff had an idea. He suggested to his two sons, Howard and David, in their mid-Twenties, that the go to Mt. Pinatubo region and compile a book of photography and prose on the disaster with the proceeds going to support relief efforts there.

The other day I received a copy of this book, Beneath the Ashes by photographer Howard Shernoff and David Shernoff, also a writer who teaches children with special needs in Boston.

The color pictures portray the devastation, the flight of families, the poignant way children and their parents adapt, and the heroic behavior that rises from these ashes.

Mt. Pinatubo has already belched forth ten times more debris than Mt. St. Helens and the rains have brought ash over many parts of Southeast Asia. Over 200,000 acres of farmland were buried under the lava mud, rivers changed courses, and nearly one thousand people died. And still, “only ten percent of the volcanic debris resting on the mountain has been washed down its slopes,” the authors wrote.

The region’s inhabitants, which include the aboriginal Aeta tribe that lived on the mountain, must now believe in nightmares. A year earlier, in 1990, a powerful earthquake struck the area, taking 3000 lives. During and after the eruption, typhoons collaborated to make up more of the nightmare. Scientists warned that the volcano’s eruptions could continue for three more years and throw

out ten times more material

The Shernoff sons described what they saw: “Driving through the areas surrounding Mt. Pinatubo after the eruption, it seemed as if we were not only in an unfamiliar country, but on a different planet. Pile after pile of volcanic ash passed by our car. Collapsed houses, dilapidated buildings, and disfigured trees composed the landscape.

“Practically everyone was shoveling, carrying, or bagging ash — even small children using their toy trowels and buckets,” they reported.

A community leader, Fernando Dizon, said there was no place to live. The mass destruction of fields and livestock took away most sources of income. Relief efforts in the refugee camps were inadequate; disease, especially among the children, were spreading.

The Mt. Pinatubo volcano eruption has caused 1.2 million people to lose their livelihood, their homes, shops or farms. And still the worst may not be over.

Given the scale of this natural disaster, there has been far too little worldwide media coverage. The Rim of Fire., describing the volcanoes along the western coast of the western hemisphere and east Asia, had not included Mt. Pinatubo and its sleepy centuries of history.

The victims of this disaster need help. They need attention. Taking an idea into Practice, the Shernoff father and two sons are making an effort to help provide both needs. Such a family initiative, accomplished by two brothers together, seems very rare these days in an area of effort outside sports and commerce. It is a collaboration worth emulating on small and large scales in our society. For “family” could mean much more than sitting down at dinner together and counseling one another.

(Readers interested in information about the book and its photographs may write to William Shernoff, 600 South Indian Hill Boulevard., Claremont, California, 9171