July 15, 2006

Ecuador volcano spews molten rock, villagers flee

By Alonso Soto

PINGUE, Ecuador (Reuters) - Ecuador's Tungurahua volcano
spewed ash, gas and molten rock for a second day on Saturday,
driving hundreds of evacuated villagers into nearby schools and
churches in search of refuge.

Tungurahua, located about 80 miles south of Quito, has been
increasingly active since May, when it blew out big clouds of
hot gas and prompted officials to renew a limited state of
emergency in nearby towns.

Civil defense authorities and police continued to evacuate
seven small villages around the volcano, whose name means
"throat of fire" in the indigenous Quichua language.

Civil defense authorities said more than 3,600 people have
been evacuated from the highest risk areas near the volcano.

"We need water, food and medicine ... but we are lucky we
had no deaths or people hurt," said Juan Salazar, the mayor of
Pinipe County on the outskirts of the volcano.

A rain of molten rock in the past two days that set fire to
trees and grass marks the volcano's strongest recorded activity
since it began erupting in 1999, local scientists said.

Lava flows blocked roads and destroyed bridges while people
fled their farming hamlets tucked in the folds of 16,460-foot
(5,020-meter) Tungurahua.

"I have lived here my whole life and I have never seen
something like this," said Alvira Marino, a corn farmer
standing next to the road leading out of her village.

Patricio Ramon, chief scientist of the local geophysics
institute, said the volcano "is entering a new and different
stage with more violent releases of magma and energy."

"We need to be prepared for the worst ... even though the
volcano's activity decreased on Saturday," Ramon said.

During a four-hour visit to local villages, President
Alfredo Palacio said the country needs to prepare "for the
worst-case scenario" and promised $5.7 million in relief funds
for the region.

Many fleeing villagers took refuge at schools and churches
in the town of Pingue, just a few miles (kilometers) distant.

"I had to run for my life," said Wilber Rodriguez, 24,
lying on a mattress with his wife and infant son in a school
classroom. "But I have to go back... Everything I have is in my

Rosa Bonilla, a 72-year-old farmer, said she fled with her
family after her home was almost knocked down by repeated
volcanic explosions.

"I though my house was going to come down on us," Bonilla
said. "I pray we can return soon."

The volcano's crater is little more than a mile south of
the tourist resort town of Banos whose 17,000 residents were
forced to evacuate in 1999 after loud explosions and huge
plumes of ash billowed out of its crater.

Other emergency centers were set up in Banos to receive any
residents fleeing from nearby villages.

(Additional reporting by Carlos Andrade in Quito)