Friday, August 18, 2006

Tungurahua volcano causes destruction

Ecuadorean officials said they feared the death toll from the eruption of the Tungurahua volcano could rise because 60 people remained missing Thursday after the eruption smothered houses, damaged access roads and blocked the flow of three rivers.

Volcanic ash rained down about 230 kilometers (140 miles) to the west after Tungurahua's 5,023-meter-high (16,575-foot-high) crater filled with magma and then exploded overnight.

The volcano was still unleashing a blast of gas and ash Thursday that reached as high as 8 kilometers (5 miles) into the sky.

"Does God do this in other places or does this only happen here?" said Hortensia Chicaiza as she desperately searched for food for her livestock in ash-laden vegetation near the town of Queros, 20 kilometers (12 miles) northwest of the volcano.

At least a dozen villages on the volcano's western slopes were seriously damaged or destroyed.
"This is an indescribable catastrophe," said Juan Salazar, mayor of Penipe, one of the villages. "The houses have collapsed. The rocks that fell caused injuries and burns."

In the village of Palitagua, roofs were pocked and perforated by flaming rocks, and there was heavy damage to the villages of Bilbao and Penipe.

Three other villages -- Chilibu, Choglontuz and Palitagua -- "no longer exist -- everything is wiped out," Salazar said.

Televised images showed just the tops of electricity poles jutting out from the smoldering pyroclastic flow that smothered 107 homes in the village of Juibe Grande, on the volcano's northwest slope. Authorities said that village's 600 residents escaped in time.

They were less sure about the many holdouts who refused to answer evacuation orders Wednesday in three hamlets high on the slopes of the volcano, which is some 135 kilometers (85 miles) south of the capital of Quito.

The pyroclastic flow -- superheated material that shoots down the sides of volcanoes like a fiery avalanche at up to 300 kph (190 mph) -- damaged roads and blocked the Patate, Puela and Chambo rivers.

That forced the shutdown of the Agoyan hydroelectric plant about six kilometers (four miles) from the volcano, denying power to all or part of four jungle provinces in Ecuador, already in a serious energy crunch due to a prolonged drought.

A doctor said about 50 people from Penipe were treated for burns caused by "pyroclastic flows and incandescent rocks that burned them as they tried to flee."

He said they also were injured by superheated vapor. "It was a scene of chaos, a Dantesque situation," Dr. Hernan Ayala told Ecuador's Channel 4 from a medical center in Riobamba, where many of the victims were taken. "There are six whom we consider the most grave, one of them with burns over 85 percent of the body."

The ash cloud reached almost all the way from the Andes to the Pacific, forcing flights between Quito and Ecuador's largest city of Guayaquil to be suspended due to poor visibility, said Quito's airport chief, Rene Estrella.

Ecuador's Civil Defense said about 4,500 people were able to escape the rivers of fire -- a horrific sight to villagers in the middle of the frigid Andean night.

Rescuers recovered the body of a 50-year-old man in Penipe and four others were believed trapped under the rubble.

"There are 60 other people who are on the high flanks of the volcano whom we could not get to this morning," Salazar said.

Along villages and towns that were not evacuated, people organized to try to clear roads of the ash that swirled in clouds with every passing vehicle.

"We're buried in ash between five and 10 centimeters (two and four inches) thick," said Manuel Caizabanda, mayor of Pelileo, 18 kilometers (11 miles) northwest of the volcano. "There is nothing left of our agriculture. We ask for help, support for the people and the large and small livestock."
President Alfredo Palacio said the government had released US$2 million (euro1.55 million) to help people displaced by the eruption.

Col. Robert Rodriguez, deputy director of Ecuador's Civil Defense, said more than half the residents of Banos -- a popular tourist city of 18,000 at the northeast foot of the volcano -- had evacuated, many fleeing before dawn as the ash rained down.

By daylight, Banos was covered in a thick brown soup, its houses, cars and roads smothered, its trees ripped bare.

Banos resident Gabriela Gonzalez went out at dawn with a cloth bag to collect pieces of volcanic rock that had rained down.

"Later we will sell these to these same gringo" tourists, she said.

After remaining dormant for eight decades, Tungurahua rumbled back to life in 1999 and has been active ever since.

About 3,700 people were ordered to evacuate the volcano's slopes in July after a sharp spike in the eruptive force, but many later returned.

Geophysics Institute Director Hugo Yepes said this eruption intensified over a 19-hour period before ending sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. local time (0700-0800 GMT) on Thursday.
While the volcano appeared to be in "state of total calm," he added that the prospect of more destructive eruptions could not be ruled out.

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