Volcano's fiery eruption leaves one person dead, 60 missing in Ecuador

Friday, August 18, 2006

BANOS, Ecuador -- A volcanic eruption in Ecuador's Andes mountains showered incandescent rock and lava on nearby villages, smothering houses and burning residents as thousands tried to flee to safety. At least one person was killed and 60 were missing.

The Tungurahua volcano exploded overnight, raining ash for miles and sending molten rock flowing down its slopes for hours. The fiery mountain was still unleashing a blast of gas and ash Thursday that reached 5 miles into the sky.

At least a dozen villages on the volcano's western slopes were seriously damaged or destroyed -- 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 16,575-foot volcano, which is some 85 miles south of the capital of Quito.

"This is an indescribable catastrophe. The houses have collapsed. The rocks that fell caused injuries and burns," said Juan Salazar, mayor of Penipe, one of the villages.

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

Rescuers recovered one body 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," he said.

The pyroclastic flow -- superheated material that shoots down the sides of volcanos like a fiery avalanche at up to 190 mph -- damaged access roads and blocked three rivers, the Patate, Puela and Chambo.

That forced the shutdown of the nearby Agoyan hydroelectric plant, denying power to all or part of four jungle provinces, said Alejandro Ribadeneira, president of Ecuador's National Electrification Council. The electricity loss is particularly troublesome since Ecuador is suffering a serious energy crunch due to prolonged drought.

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

Authorities had ordered the evacuation of a dozen hamlets on the volcano's slopes, and 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.

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

"They were also burned by vapor and the elevated heat in the zone. 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."

President Alfredo Palacio said the government had released $2 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.

After remaining dormant for eight decades, Tungurahua rumbled back to life in 1999 and has been active ever since, registering booming explosions in May that shattered windows in outlying communities. About 3,700 people living on the volcano's slopes were ordered to evacuate in July after a sharp spike in the eruptive force, but many later returned.

Geophysics Institute Director Hugo Yepes said this eruption ended sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. local time. He said the volcano is now in a "state of total calm," but couldn't rule out more destructive eruptions.

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