60 Missing As Ecuador Volcano Erupts

volcano graphic
AP (file)
A violent eruption by Ecuador's Tungurahua volcano showered incandescent rock and lava on nearby villages, killing at least one person, leaving 60 missing and burning residents as they tried to flee, a local mayor said Thursday.

Authorities had ordered the evacuation of three Andean hamlets on Tungurahua's slopes Wednesday after the volcano's crater filled with lava, but many residents were reluctant to leave their homes, said Juan Salazar, mayor of the village of Penipe, 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 ... in Penipe," Salazar told Channel 4 television about the eruption late Wednesday. The injured were taken to the city of Riobamba, he said.

He said there was heavy damage to the villages of Bilbao and Penipe, high in Ecuador's Andes mountains, and the villages of Chilibu, Choglontuz and Palitagua "no longer exist. Everything is wiped out."

Rescuers have recovered one body in Penipe and four others are believed trapped under the rubble, Salazar said.

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

The villages of Penipe, Bilboa and Choglontuz were ordered evacuated on Wednesday hours before the 16,575-foot volcano unleashed a blast of gas and ash some 5 miles into the sky, and also spewed lava and rocks, but at lower altitudes, according to a report by Ecuador's Geophysics Institute.

It was the first fatality reported from a Tungurahua eruption since it rumbled back to life in 1999, after remaining dormant for eight decades.

Geophysics Institute Director Hugo Yepes told radio Quito that the eruption ended sometime between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. local time (0700-0800 GMT). The volcano "is in an apparent state of total calm," he said.

"We are seeing a column of gas rising four or five kilometers" from the crater," he added. "The explosive activity has stopped."

Dr. Hernan Ayala, speaking to Channel 4 from a medical center in Riobamba, the capital of Chimborazo province, told Channel 4 TV that 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," he said. "There are six whom we consider the most grave, one of them with burns over 85 percent of the body."

Local media reported that people from Banos, a popular tourist city of 20,000 inhabitants at the northeast foot of the volcano, started to flee before dawn Thursday as volcanic ash rained down.

Ashfall also showered down on Riobamba and the cities of Ambato, Guaranda and Pelileo to the west and southwest.

Regional governor Eduardo Toaza told Channel 8 television that volcanic rock and ash had blocked the flow of the Patate, Puela and Chambo rivers.