“I would always like to be near craters, drunk with fire, gas, my face burned by the heat.”

Off the north coast of Sicily is a small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea where a monster sleeps fitfully. A volcano, known as Stromboli, has been continuously active for the past 1,400 years. Boats approach, brimming with passengers who eagerly await the Lighthouse of the Mediterranean, which will eventually spew a cone of fire. Only the bravest travelers seek to step foot on the black rock beaches. 

From an early age, Katia Krafft was astounded by the power of volcanoes like Stromboli. She wasn’t alone—Katia married the only person in the world who was just as obsessed, Maurice Krafft.

The pair met at the University of Strasbourg. In 1970, Katia and Maurice got married and spent their honeymoon near the still-active volcanoes on the Greek island of Santorini. Stromboli was only the first volcanic site that they would visit over their lives together; there are approximately 1,500 potentially active volcanoes on the planet and the couple would eventually visit 150.

Though Katia and Maurice agreed to devote their lives to advancing mankind’s knowledge of volcanoes, neither wanted to be tied down to bureaucracy found at universities and scientific organizations or publish annually. 

So they decided to take the unorthodox step of becoming freelance volcanologists. They had very little money initially, and no funds for specialized equipment. Instead, they took their cameras, camping gear, heavy gloves, and used stocking caps as head protection. After adding a roll of duct tape to cover the holes in their jeans caused by a volcano’s acid river spray, the pair pulled up their boots and headed to Stromboli’s three active craters, located at its peak.

The first sight of the erupting volcano stunned Katia into silence. The crater’s center bubbled with red boiling lava. A malevolent fountain sent sprays of boiling lava straight up in the air and superheated rocks were crashing all around her. Katia felt the hot air burn her cheeks and yet she still didn’t move, so spectacular was the sight.

While Maurice had visited an erupting volcano with his father as a boy, Katia had only seen a movie of an eruption. When she left the theater, she knew that she wanted to be a volcanologist and here she was—staring into the burning heart of an eruption. 

This emotion is what Katia had worked her entire life for. “When you’re camped on the rim of a volcano you have all these noises all around you, like you’re in the bowels of the earth. And compared to this giant volcano, you are just nothing. This is very nice to feel,” she said.

Gathering herself, she began taking photos—some of the 300,000 she took over the course of her career. Katia’s bravery in the face of danger is a major part of what allowed her to make such an impact on the study of volcanoes and become a female pioneer in science and photography, inspiring future generations of women scientists. 

She and Maurice eventually compiled the world’s most extensive body of knowledge on volcanoes. They wrote books, appeared on countless television shows, spoke at dozens of conferences and were the subject of an exhibit titled “The Man Facing Volcanoes,” which was displayed in several countries.

The ways in which the couple gained notoriety was considered foolhardy by many of their scientific colleagues. From their base in France’s Alsace region, they hopped on a plane at the first report of any eruptive phenomenon and, many times, were the first on the scene. They’d then pitch tents as close to the rim as possible and sleep as though an inferno wasn’t raging beneath them. 

They spent their days gathering gas and rock samples, taking photos and videos and gathering notes for their series of books, the sale of which, along with solicited donations, funded their travels. An American colleague nicknamed the pair “Volcano Devils.”

Katia wanted nothing more from life than to be staring into a blazing volcano, which led her to pursue her dreams and to become one of the most famous women in volcano science. She once said, “I would always like to be near craters, drunk with fire, gas, my face burned by the heat…. It’s not that I flirt with my death, but at this point I don’t care about it, because there is the pleasure of approaching the beast and not knowing if he is going to catch you.

Even at home, Katia and Maurice wanted to stay close to their passion. Their simple concrete home in the Rhine Valley was stacked high with evidence of their travels and research. Chunks of lava and magma sculptures crafted into polished body parts lined the walls.

Some may have called the couple crazy, but they were aware of the dangers that awaited them. They always kept close the skull of a man who’d been killed in a catastrophic mudslide. They also held onto a melted tape recorder, which they recovered from a young volcanologist who perished at Mount St. Helena. They would never know what last words were trapped inside. 

Like the photographs and video stills they collected over their careers, Katia and Maurice hoped to share these artifacts with the public. They purchased a parcel of land for their retirement not far from Hawaii’s Kilauea Crater, which they planned to visit even in their old age.

That day would never come. 

Katia and Maurice arrived in the Japanese city of Shimabara in May of 1991 to document the eruption at Mount Unzen. The Kraffts had come to witness the pyroclastic flows—a mixture of broiling gas and volcanic fragments, such as ash, pumice, and glass shards that can exceed temperatures of 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit and can reach speeds of over 100 miles per hour. The couple had only been able to witness these flows after nightfall once before. This time, the volcano was gray—explosive volcanoes were so named for the gray ash clouds they emitted.

“The eruption of the Unzen is probably the most dangerous I have seen in my life,” Maurice confided to a colleague.

Katia and Maurice prepared themselves with more than duct tape this time. They were ready, or so they thought. Ho-musubi, the fire god of Japan, was hungry for more victims.

On June 3, Katia, Maurice, and some colleagues had been working on the ground at Mount Unzen when a pyroclastic flow, shot out of a side fissure, engulfing their observation site.

Even though they were two miles from the opening, the Kraffts and their fellows couldn’t have outrun it. 

At 4 p.m., Katia and Maurice Krafft and 39 others were confirmed dead. 

When Katia and her husband died, they had been working with authorities to design warning and rescue systems. These protocols would go on to save thousands of people that were in vulnerable locations around the globe.

Katia’s legacy lives on through such contributions to the scientific community. She is remembered as a pioneer, and as a woman who empowered future generations of female scientists to be just as brave, and to break down whatever barriers hold them back from pursuing their passions. The Krafft Medal honoring the couples’ memory is awarded every four years to someone who has contributed to volcanology through service to communities affected by volcanic activity. 

A volcano on Reunion Island called Piton de la Fournaise, or Peak of the Furnace, is named after the Kraffts. It has erupted approximately twice a year since March 1998 and last erupted in June 2019.

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