At least 30 die in Congo blast

Tuesday, January 22, 2002

GOMA, Congo -- Lava touched off a massive explosion and a series of fireballs at a gas station Monday, killing at least 30 people scavenging for fuel. Still, residents picked their way across hardening slabs of lava, returning home to this town demolished by a volcanic eruption.

With most of the tens of thousands who fled last week's eruption already returned, a volcano expert declared the area reasonably safe despite continuing earth tremors. He said there were no indications Mount Nyiragongo would erupt again soon and that all lava flows had halted.

Residents scoured cooling tongues of lava for scorched sheets of corrugated iron to use as roofs for makeshift dwellings. Lava destroyed about 40 percent of the city at the head of Lake Kivu, but on Monday the streets once again teemed with people, and many shops were open. U.N. officials said they were concerned about water and air quality.

Fuel fumes ignited

The blast at the gas station showed the dangers as residents try to move in. Lava apparently ignited fumes of gasoline and diesel fuel at the station, detonating a series of massive fireballs that sent a cloud of jet-black smoke into the sky.

People were trying to scoop fuel into plastic containers from the burned-out station when the first explosion hit. One witness said 50 people were killed, but soldiers from the rebel organization that controls Goma said 30 died, some women and children.

More than a dozen 50-gallon barrels in the station storeroom exploded for hours, sending 100-foot flames skyward and engulfing the building. No bodies were visible outside.

There have been unconfirmed reports that as many as 40 people were killed in the initial eruption on Thursday, when Mount Nyiragongo -- 30 miles to the north -- sent streams of lava that destroyed some 14 villages and ran through the center of Goma.

Jacques Durieux, a vulcanologist at the French Group for the Study of Active Volcanoes, said the worst of the eruption appeared to be over. He said continuing earthquakes caused by the settling of the area were the only threat. "The active phase of the volcanic eruption is finished," he said.

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