The True Story Of How Heroic Engineers Saved A Village From Volcanic Annhiliation

A true story about Mount Etna, lava and human determination

Grant Piper
6 min readJun 11, 2022


Artist rendition of a Mount Etna eruption (Public domain)

On December 14th, 1991, Mount Etna in Sicily began erupting once again. Etna is a very active volcano and eruptions are not uncommon. However, the eruption that began in late 1991 would end up being unique for a variety of reasons. First, the eruption was not very explosive. At first, that appeared to be a very good thing. Instead, large volumes of thick hot lava began pouring from the volcano. The lava formed large streams that began pouring down the slopes towards inhabited areas.

This in and of itself was not a huge deal. The towns clinging to the sides of the active volcano had contingencies and defenses in place to help divert and quell the lava before it reached the buildings below. These defenses included trenches, walls, earthworks, and reservoirs aimed at stopping and controlling the slow moving lava.

The problem with the 1991 eruption was that it produced a lot of lava. The lava started flowing in December and by New Year’s 1992, the lava was still flowing and it was showing no signs of stopping.

As the eruption unfolded and the massive amounts of liquid rock began pouring down the rugged slopes it became apparent that one village was directly in its path: Zafferana Etnea.

Initial Mitigation Efforts

Location of the village along Mt. Etna (Google Maps)

In January when it became apparent that the lava flows were not dissipating any time soon a massive engineering project was launched to block the lava before it reached the village of Zafferana Etnea. A large wall of earth was thrown up in the path of the oncoming lava. And this was no small wall.

The wall measured 760 feet long and over 65 feet tall. This was akin to a levee or a dike built to contain liquid rock rather than water. Excavators and bulldozers worked around the clock to complete the wall which was to hold back the lava until the eruption subsided.



Grant Piper

Thought provoking articles, when time and payouts permit it.