Sat, Aug 19, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Thousands flee Ecuador volcano

`DANTESQUE SITUATION' As residents tried to leave, they were burned by flaming rocks and molten lava that wiped out three villages and blocked three rivers


A boy cleans the roof of his home in Banos, Ecuador, which is loaded down with ashes from the eruption of Tungurahua Volcano on Thursday.


Showers of incandescent rock and lava from a volcanic eruption in Ecuador's Andes Mountains destroyed nearby villages, killing at least one resident and causing thousands to flee.

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

Volcanic ash rained down about 230km to the west after Tungurahua's 5,023m-high crater filled with magma and then exploded overnight.

The volcano was still unleashing a blast of gas and ash on Thursday that reached 8km 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, 20km 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," he said.

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.

They were less sure about the many holdouts who refused to answer evacuation orders on Wednesday in three hamlets high on the slopes of the volcano, which is some 135km 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 300kph -- damaged roads and blocked the Patate, Puela and Chambo rivers.

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."

"It was a scene of chaos, a Dantesque situation," Hernan Ayala said 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," he said.

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