By Manny Ugalde Correspondent and Sheila Mañalac Reporter
MAYON volcano erupted without warning on Tuesday, spewing a giant plume of ash 500 meters into the air and sending rocks down the mountain. Four foreign tourists— three Germans and an Australian—and their local guide were killed when they were crushed by rocks belched out by the volcano.
Reports said 20 mountaineers were also trapped in the vicinity of Barangay Bonga, Bacacay.
Albay Gov. Joey Salceda said three groups of tourists were scaling the cone-shaped volcano when it suddenly erupted. He confirmed that four of the fatalities were foreign tourists.
Kenneth Gesalva, one of the mountaineers, was in tears when he narrated how his companions, including one German and an Australian, died. He said the tourists were buried and squashed by rocks that hurtled down the slopes.
Gesalva, who led the first group up the Malilipot side of the volcano, said they were having a brief rest when they heard rumbling sounds followed by falling rocks. All members of the group scampered for safety but one tourist was crushed by a falling rock.
“It rained like hell with stones,” local tour operator Marti Calleja quoted an Austrian woman who survived the ordeal as saying.
“The rocks that came crashing down on them were as big as dining (table) sets,” he told Agence France-Presse by phone.
Calleja said three Filipino guides from his firm and five foreigners had begun hiking up Mayon just a few hours before the eruption.
Calleja said the foreigners paid about $100 each for an overnight adventure on the 2,460-meter Mayon, which is famed for its near-perfect cone but has a long history of deadly eruptions.
Seven persons were also reported injured. One victim was reported to be in critical condition because of fractured bones.
Officials had to deploy a helicopter to rescue the victims and the people trapped in the mountain.
Meanwhile, thousands of residents evacuated the six-kilometer danger zone.
The Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council identified some of those injured as Kenneth Jesalva, a tourist guide of Malilipot town, Straw Vega, an Australian, and Thais Udome Kiat, Utan Ruchi, Boonchi and Benjama.
President Benigno Aquino 3rd ordered an inquiry into why tourists were allowed inside the Permanent Danger Zone.
Palace deputy spokesman Abigail Valte said President Aquino wants to find out the parameters of the volcano’s restricted area.
“What we understand is the local government has restricted activity the six-kilometer danger zone is something that is enforced by the local government,” she said. “They are assigned to enforce it to make sure that nobody gets hurt.”
Valte explained that permanent settlement is banned in the permanent danger zone. However, some tourist activities are allowed.
Valte said the focus now is to attend to the injured and “facilitating the repatriation of the fatalities.”
Alex Baloloy, resident volcanologist of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs), said Mayon had a phreatic explosion, sending ashes to as high as 500 meters. The incident was similar to what happened in February 1993 when Mayon suddenly erupted at high noon, killing close to 80 people.
Phivolcs however said there is no reason to raise alert levels. Another volcanologist, Ed Laguerta, said the eruption that lasted 73 seconds was steam-driven and caused by the pressure of heat that developed underneath the volcano, causing the steam to push up ash and which was spewed as an ash cloud.
Laguerta said they had not detected any volcanic earthquake in the past 24 hours. He said it is normal for a volcano to have a phreatic explosion.
He said the 1993 explosion was worse because there were farmers on the slope of the volcano when it erupted. No preceding abnormal volcanic behavior was also noticed before the explosion.
Laguerta said the 1993 eruption buried bridges, roads and farmlands.
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A six-kilometer radius “permanent danger zone” is enforced around the volcano but Calleja said the local government allowed people to climb when there were no signs of an eruption.
“Between 300 and 1,000 climbers come here during the peak season from May to August,” Calleja said.
Chief state seismologist Renato Solidum said people living around Mayon did not need to evacuate. He said the explosion was triggered when rainwater made contact with hot ash deposits on the crater mouth.
“There is no magma activity. Essentially what happened today is a normal process of a steam-driven explosion,” Solidum told a news conference in Manila.
Residents in towns around the picturesque volcano said they were surprised by the sudden activity, which came as many were having breakfast.
“It was so sudden that many of us panicked,” Jun Marana, a 46-year-old bus driver and father of two, told AFP by telephone.
“When we stepped out we saw this huge column against the blue sky.”
Marana said the ash column was dispersed by winds after about an hour, but said he was not taking his chances and was prepared to leave his home anytime.
Mayon, about 330 kilometers southeast of Manila, has erupted dozens of times in recorded history.
In 1814, more than 1,200 people were killed when lava flows buried the town of Cagsawa. In December 2009 tens of thousands of villagers were displaced when Mayon spewed ash and lava.
The volcano also erupted in August 2006. There were no direct deaths caused by the explosion, but the following December a passing typhoon unleashed an avalanche of volcanic mud from its slopes that killed 1,000 people.
With a report from AFP