Katia and Maurice Krafft, the volcanologists killed by Mount Unzen

Katia and Maurice Krafft
United States Geological Survey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Catherine Joséphine “Katia” Kraft and her husband Maurice Paul Krafft were French volcanologists and filmmakers who were killed when the Mount Unzen volcano erupted in Japan in 1991.

The couple met while studying at the University of Strasbourg and married in 1970. They honeymooned at Stromboli, Italy, where they photographed its near-continuous eruption. They recognised the public interest in the documentation of volcanic eruptions and began to make a career of filming them.

They were known for their close-up filming, photographing, and recording of volcanoes, and their work has been featured in several documentary films including Into the Inferno (2016), The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft (2022), and Fire of Love (2022) which used their footage to depict their career.

The Volcanologists

Katia and Maurice Krafft were well-known in the volcanology community for being among the first to arrive at the scene of an active volcano.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the Kraffts documented various volcanoes and volcanic eruptions, with Maurice filming and Katia taking photographs.

Their footage of the effects of volcanic eruptions on surrounding areas often played a significant role in convincing local authorities to cooperate with evacuation efforts.

One of their final projects was “Understanding Volcanic Hazards and Reducing Volcanic Risks”, where they produced informational films and educational materials on the science of volcanic eruptions and the importance of evacuations.

In 1991, when Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines began to show activity, their footage of the 1985 Nevado del Ruiz lahar in Colombia, which had caused the Armero tragedy, was shown to large numbers of people, including the country’s then-president, Corazon Aquino. This was credited with convincing some sceptics to evacuate the area.

In addition to their observations, the Kraffts also conducted research by taking measurements, gas readings, and samples, often from just feet away from pyroclastic and lava flows, and documented the effects of the eruptions on the local ecosystem. They also reported the formation of new volcanoes, as well as the effects of acid rain and ash clouds.

Mount Unzen eruption

Mount Unzen is well known for its devastating eruption on June 3, 1991, at 4:08 pm which resulted in the deaths of 37 people, including Katia and Maurice Krafft as well as their colleague Harry Glicken. The three of them were on the mountain to document the eruption.

Harry Glicken had narrowly escaped death during the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington.

The bodies of the Kraffts and Glicken were recovered on June 5 and identified via personal items such as Maurice’s watch and camera.

The Kraffts’ bodies were found near their rental car, lying together under a layer of ash, while Glicken’s body was found nearby.

The position of the bodies suggests that Glicken attempted to flee while the Kraffts stayed in place.

The footage they had filmed of the approaching flow was destroyed by the intense heat of the eruption.

After his death, Maurice was quoted in the Associated Press as saying that he wanted to die pursuing his passion, “at the edge of a volcano.”