Villagers mourn victims of Ecuador's 'throat of fire'

Blanca Hernandez sobbed as she recalled how the uncle she was mourning had been buried by lava while trying to save a television during the eruption of Ecuador’s “throat of fire” volcano.

“My uncle did not want to help me save three cows and a llama; instead he went with his 19-year-old stepdaughter to retrieve a television and a DVD. That’s when the lava took them away,” said Hernandez.

She mourned her uncle at a funeral parlour in Penipe, a hamlet to which she and other villagers had fled as Tugurahua—which means “throat of fire” in the Quechua language—erupted on Thursday.

At least five people were killed, 13 more were injured and entire villages were buried under ash and lava.

The body at the Penipe funeral parlour was the only one that was recovered; the others are feared buried under the lava.

Many of the survivors have lost the little they owned. Gladys Balseca may be among the lucky ones, even though her small farm was completely destroyed.
“Thank God we still have a few sheep, rabbits and chickens,” she said.

About 4 000 people living at the foot of the volcano were evacuated, more than 20 000ha of farmland were destroyed and hundreds of cows were killed, officials said. A farmers’ association estimated losses at $150-million.

The powerful explosion produced “glowing rocks, ash and lava that devastated several areas”, said Penipe mayor Juan Salazar, whose community is covered in a dense layer of ash. “We suffered 18 continuous hours of fire.”

Experts have not ruled out renewed eruptions. “We can’t say whether this is the last eruption,” said Hugo Yepez, who heads Quito University’s Geophysical Institute.

The Ecuadorian government on Friday appealed for international aid to provide urgently needed food, medicine and financial assistance to the victims.

“There’s nothing left, just bones. I don’t know how we managed to escape,” said Juana Merino, who returned with military troops on Friday to find her village of Palitahua completely destroyed.

“This here was my aunt’s house, the neighbour’s was there,” she said pointing to the emptiness where the homes once stood.

Army Major Cleber Guaytirilla was evidently stunned by the devastation. “We came because we thought we could rescue something, but there is nothing left.”

Charred cattle carcasses littered the ash-covered ground.

The eruption also caused the closure of three regional airports and a hydroelectric power station. Authorities had to shut down the installation for fear debris hurled into the waters that feed the power plant could damage the two turbines.

The 5 029m volcano erupted violently before dawn Thursday following a 4,4-magnitude earthquake. The eruption was the strongest since 1999, officials said.

On Friday, visible volcanic activity was minimal, but magma apparently continued to accumulate inside the volcano, suggesting new eruptions would eventually take place, said Yepez of the Geophysical Institute.—AFP

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