In March 1991, when a series of earthquakes hit the western side of the island of Luzon along the Zambales Mountains, locals awoke to the reality that in the middle of the Zambales range, there might be a dormant volcano. Pinatubo — quiet since before the lands under it were named the Philippines — erupted a few months later, in June.
The explosion was to be the second largest of the 20th century (second only to that of Novarupta in Alaska in 1912). Unlike the Alaskan volcano, half a million people lived next to Pinatubo and several important river systems stem from its peak. A logistical and environmental nightmare loomed. Adding to the woes, a typhoon was ripped through the island, mixing Pinatubo’s ash with rains, which created concrete-like mud that collapsed roofs and buildings miles away.
Many photojournalists came to the area, and the most iconic shot of the explosion — and perhaps of any volcanic eruption — was that of a Ford Fierra fleeing a gargantuan cloud of pyroclastic flows, a fast-moving current of hot gas up to 450 mph and 1,000 °C strong. [See a pyroclastic flow in action on video here.] The photo was taken by Alberto Garcia, chief photographer of Tempo, a tabloid affiliated with the Manila Bulletin, who remembers taking the photo about 20-30 km away from the caldera:
“It took me 30 minutes to prepare my things and headed back to Zambales where the [volcanologists] were stationed. … So everybody jumped into our vehicles and I was trying to put on my gas masked when I saw a blue pick-up ahead of that beautiful wall of gray. I opened the door and tried shooting the picture with my 50mm lens but it was too tight, so I decided to change the lens and used the 24mm instead and made sure my setting was correct and shot eight frames. Although I had only eight shots, I rewound the entire roll of film, keeping it safe in my pocket.”
Garcia won the World Press Photo, in the nature and environment category. The photo was included in Time’s “Greatest Images of the 20th Century” (2001) and National Geographic’s “100 Best Pictures” (2001).