August 9, 2006

Filipinos Fear Full Moon Foreshadows Volcano Blast

By Darren Whiteside

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines -- Scientists and villagers in the shadow of a churning volcano in the central Philippines fear Wednesday's full moon could finally spark a violent eruption.

Volcanologists have warned that Mount Mayon, in the province of Albay, could explode at any time but that the gravitational pull of a full moon could provide the final push.

"To put it in a simple way, it's like it massages a volcano," Ernesto Corpuz, head of monitoring and eruption prediction at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, told Reuters.

A full moon coincided with at least three of Mayon's nearly 50 explosions over the last four centuries, including the two most recent in 2000 and 2001, Corpuz said.

Nearly 40,000 people have been moved from an 8-km (5-mile) danger zone on the southeast flank of the volcano, which has been quaking and spitting plumes of ash since July, a member of the provincial disaster council said.

But some have not yet left their livestock and vegetable plots despite an encroaching four-storey wall of scalding lava that has streamed more than 6 km from Mayon's crater.

Benjamin Esquivel, 70, said he would leave his home in the danger zone only when the volcano erupted.

"My parents told me a full moon triggers an eruption and I believe them because they lived through many explosions," said Esquivel, who lost three sons when Mayon blew in 1993.

His wife and two children have left for an evacuation center but he was staying behind to look after their chickens and pigs.

"I'll leave tonight because of the full moon," said Ambrosio Baranquil, a 41-year-old farmer whose village is 3 km from the foot of the mountain. "My wife and five kids are already gone."


Filipino and foreign tourists have flocked to the city of Legazpi to watch nature's fire show.

"This is one of the great wonders of the world. I want to show my kids what Mayon volcano is," said Eve Talavera, a Filipino immigrant to the United States, as she and her five children watched from a hill.

In school houses, crowded with families who have fled their homes, villagers swapped tales of Mayon's previous blasts.

"I've witnessed six eruptions, the first in 1928 and the strongest in 1968 when rocks as big as houses came tumbling down," said Isabel Lodana, an 84-year-old grandmother.

The 2,462-meter (8,077-foot) mountain is the most active of 22 volcanoes in the Philippines. Its most destructive eruption in 1841 buried a town and killed 1,200 people.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo has said she is confident there will be no casualties if Mayon blows.

The Philippines, which sits on a seismically active stretch of the Pacific Ocean known as the "Ring of Fire," is prone to natural disasters such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, as well as flooding caused by tropical storms.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Agcaoili, Karen Lema and Dolly Aglay)