Sunday, August 20, 2006

Experts predict another eruption for volcano in Ecuador

In normal times, Luis Egas would have risen before dawn to tend livestock or fields of potatoes and onions. But as the sun rose Saturday, all he could do was survey his village, laid waste by a volcanic eruption that spewed showers of ash, rock and molten lava.

"We never thought Tungurahua would awake like this," Egas said of the volcano whose name means "throat of fire" in the local Quichua language.

Authorities said Saturday that three people had died from the 19-hour eruption, which ended Thursday before dawn, and that two others were feared dead. Another 30 people who had been listed as missing have been located alive.

Egas and a few others remain in Bilbao, defying a standing government evacuation order to leave the "red zone," and warnings from experts that, though eerily calm, the Tungurahua volcano could be poised to erupt again.

"We feared a big eruption, but not of this magnitude," said Egas, looking at meter-deep (3-foot-deep) drifts of volcanic ash that caved in rooftops, and the still hot pyroclastic flows superheated material that shoots down the sides of volcanos like a fiery avalanche at up to 190 mph (300 kph).
About 80 percent of Bilbao's adobe brick homes were destroyed.

Nearly all of its 500 inhabitants fled to makeshift shelters in churches and schools in villages farther from the volcano, like Cotalo, 10 kilometers (six miles) to the northwest.

"We are afraid, but we cannot leave our belongings, what little we have," said Egas, who remained in Bilbao with his parents. A few meters (yards) away, volcanic steam rose off an ash-contaminated creek that had supplied the community's irrigation water.

The eruption disrupted the lives of about 30,000 people, many of them poor Quichua-speaking Indians, in three highland provinces, officials said.

Police Capt. Jorge Ubidia said Saturday in Cotalo that he believed everyone should clear off the volcano's slopes.

"The problem is that people don't want to leave, and we don't know if we should take them out by force," he told The Associated Press, peering up toward the volcano, shrouded in clouds. "We're very frightened."

Jose Grijalva, director of Ecuador's Civil Defense, said 3,000 people were evacuated under an emergency order immediately before and during the eruption, but many of them have returned.
Bilbao is one five areas, mostly on the volcano's western slope, where people are forbidden to enter, he said. People in other areas along the slopes farther north had been advised to evacuate voluntarily, and Banos the popular tourist city of 18,000 at the northeast foot of the volcano is on alert.
Grijalva confirmed two fatalities, and said that 30 other people listed as missing had been located in the homes of relatives or in shelters. Seven people remained hospitalized Saturday for injuries and burns.
Meanwhile, Juan Salazar, village mayor of Penipe, said the body of a man had been recovered Saturday outside the village.
The 85-year-old had been washed away by a flood of water caused by volcanic ash damming up the Puela river, and he was found by his family.
"We never thought Tungurahua would do this to us. I am not going to live here anymore," said Maria Hidalgo, the dead man's niece, in Palictahua, a hamlet near Penipe, where the eruption destroyed all 15 homes.

Authorities were searching for two more people from the hamlet believed crushed under fallen debris.

Ecuador's Geophysics Institute urged residents and tourists to stay away from the 16,575-foot (5,023-meter) volcano, located some 135 kilometers (85 miles) south of the capital of Quito.
The volcano remained in an apparent state of calm Saturday, said institute volcanologist Patricia Mothes from an observation post near Tungurahua. But she warned that energy was building up inside.

"We have had 72 hours go by and after several days of accumulating energy, many times there is an abrupt change, but when that will be, nobody knows," she said in a telephone interview.
Ash from the eruption covers about 20,000 hectares (nearly 500,000 acres) of pasture land and corn, potato and other crops, said Patricio Donoso, president of Ecuador's Chamber of Agriculture.

Some 350 cows, pigs and other livestock have died, he added, and thousands of other head of livestock are "suffering digestive and respiratory problems" from volcanic contamination of grass and water.

The eruption Thursday was the 14th time Tungurahua has sent hot lava and ash onto villages on its flanks since its first recorded eruption in the Spanish colonial era in 1534. After remaining dormant for eight decades, Tungurahua rumbled back to life in 1999 and has been active ever since.
Associated Press Writer Gabriela Molina contributed to this report from Quito, Ecuador.

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