You’re Having A Laugh – Part Thirty Four

The Mount Edgecumbe eruption hoax, 1974

If you are going to pull off a hoax, you need to plan meticulously and to bide your time to make the maximum impact. This is what serial prankster, Oliver “Porky” Bickar managed to do with considerable aplomb in 1974.

Mount Edgecumbe is a 3,202-feet-tall volcano which overlooks the Alaskan town of Sitka across the sound. As far as anyone knew it had been dormant for some 400 years or so it was a bit of a shock to the residents to see on Monday April 1, 1974 a pall of black smoke coming from its apex. Was an eruption imminent, they wondered? Denizens of Sitka crowded on to the streets to see what was going on and the local authorities were inundated with calls.  

Bickar had first conceived of his jape some three years earlier and had spent the time waiting for the right weather conditions profitably, stockpiling old tyres, a gallon of a fuel made from denatured and jellied alcohol which burns in its can, trademarked as Sterno, diesel oil, rags, and smoke bombs. Miraculously, on April Fool’s Day the weather conditions were perfect for Bickar to pull off his stunt. But how was he going to get his stockpiled equipment to the summit?

He called his friend, Earl Walker, who owned a helicopter but was fog-bound in Petersburg. When Bickar told him what he planned to do, Walker was enthusiastic and promised to get to Sitka just as  soon as weather conditions permitted. Whilst waiting, Bickar made two rope slings about 150-feet long, each capable of holding around fifty tyres. He also enlisted the help of two accomplices, Larry Nelson and Ken Stedman, and when Walker finally arrived, they loaded the chopper with their equipment and flew off to the crater.

When they got there, they dropped seventy tyres and some smoke bombs into the crater, set them alight and spray-painted in letters 50-feet high “April Fool” in the surrounding snow. Not wanting to create a major panic, Bickar had forewarned the local Police authorities and the Federal Aviation Authority of his intended jape. When Walker contacted the FAA for permission to return to Sitka, the controller is reported to have said, “I’ll bring you in as low and inconspicuously as possible…and, by the way, the son of a gun looks fantastic”.      

But Bickar had neglected to contact the Coast Guard, who seeing the plumes of smoke coming from the top of the supposedly dormant volcano, contacted the Admiral stationed at Juneau, who thought they had better send a helicopter to investigate. As the pilot neared the volcano who could see the source of the smoke, not volcanic ash but a heap of burning tyres and then, of course, the message confirming that it was all a hoax.

When news reached Sitka that the plume was a hoax, the locals, initially relieved, saw the funny side and admired Bickar’s chutzpah. Even the Coast Guard saw the funny side and when he met the Admiral at the Fourth of July parade later that year, Bickar was told that he thought it was a classic. And news of the prank spread like wildfire, picked up initially by the Associated Press and accounts appearing in newspapers around the world. Alaskan Airlines ran an advertising campaign highlighting the spirit of the locals and their sense of fun. Bickar’s hoax was featured and the brief account ended with him saying, “I dare you to top that April Fool’s joke”.     

The volcano is still dormant.

There was one amusing postscript. When, in 1980, Alaska’s Mt. St Helens erupted, Bickar received a clipping from the Denver Post of the volcano and a letter from a lawyer which read, “This time, you little bastard, you’ve gone too far”.

If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone

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