Explosive eruptions shook two huge volcanos in Central and South America today, forcing thousands of people to flee their homes and disrupting air traffic as ash drifted over wide regions.
Guatemala’s Pacaya volcano started spewing lava and rocks yesterday, blanketing the country’s capital with ash and forcing the closure of the international airport. President Alvaro Colom declared a “state of calamity”.
“We thought we wouldn’t survive. Our houses crumbled and we’ve lost everything,” said Brenda Castaneda, who said she and her family hid under beds and tables as marble-sized rocks thundered down on her home in the village of Calderas. The family was waiting for rescue teams to take them to a shelter at a nearby school.
Television reporter Anibal Archila was killed by a shower of burning rocks when he got too close to the volcano, about 15 miles (25km) south of Guatemala City, said David de Leon, a spokesman for the national disaster committee.
The last images of Archila broadcast by Channel 7 television show him standing in front of a lava river and burning trees, talking about the intense heat.
De Leon said three children between the ages of seven and 12 were missing.
At least 1,600 people from villages closest to the volcano were evacuated to shelters.
The volcano’s eruption lost some intensity today, although ash still rained heavily on nearby communities and constant explosions continued to shake the 8,373ft (2,552m) mountain, according to the Central American country’s Geophysical Research and Services Unit.
The unit reported an ash plume 3,000ft (1,000m) high which trailed more than 12 miles (20km) to the north-west.
In Guatemala City, bulldozers scraped the blackened streets while residents used shovels to clean their cars and roofs, carrying out large rubbish bags filled with ash into the streets. City officials pleaded with residents not to dump the ash into sewers.
The blanket of ash was 3in (7.5cm) thick in some southern parts of the city, and officials imposed limits on trucks and motorcycles to help speed up traffic.
The government urged residents not to leave their homes unless there was an urgent need.
La Aurora airport would be closed until at least tomorrow as crews cleaned up, said Claudia Monge, a spokeswoman for Civil Aviation. Flights were being diverted to the Mundo Maya airport in northern Guatemala and Comalapa in El Salvador.
Meanwhile, strong explosions rocked Ecuador’s Tungurahua volcano, prompting evacuations hundreds of people from nearly villages.
The National Geophysics Institute said hot volcanic material blasted down the slopes of the volcano, and ash plumes soared 6 miles (10km) above a crater which is already 16,479ft (5,023m) above sea level.
Officials said that within a few hours, winds already had blown the ash over the city of Guyaquil, 110 miles (185km) to the south-west.
The eruption led aviation officials to halt flights out of Guayaquil and from Quito to Lima, Peru.
Institute researcher Sandro Vaca told Radio Sonorama that the eruption “seems to be growing rapidly”. But there were no immediate reports of deaths.
Television images showed fearful people in a village near the volcano weeping as they ran for help from soldiers and police who arrived to help in evacuations.
Eruptions at Tungurahua, 95 miles (150km) south-east of the capital, Quito, buried entire villages in 2006, leaving at least four dead and thousands homeless.
While the Guatemala eruption shut down local flights, it was not expected to affect airports in neighbouring countries like Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano did.
The ash erupting from Pacaya is thick and falls quickly to the ground, unlike the lighter ash which spewed from the volcano in Iceland and swept over much of Europe, disrupting global air travel, said Gustavo Chigna, a volcano expert with Guatemala’s institute of seismology and volcanos.
The most active of Guatemala’s 32 volcanos, Pacaya has been intermittently erupting since 1966, and tourists frequently visit areas near three lava flows formed in eruptions between 1989 and 1991.
In 1998, the volcano twice spewed plumes of ash, forcing evacuations and shutting down the airport in Guatemala City.