They Live Beside a Time Bomb!
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
WOULD you like to live beside a time bomb? One that might explode at any time with tremendous destructive fury? “Not a very pleasant prospect,” you say? Yet, that is the situation of thousands living in the towns and barrios (small villages) around majestic Mayon Volcano in the Bicol region of the Philippines.
Almost all the time, 8,000-foot- (2,400 m) high Mayon stands serene and peaceful above the fertile green plains of Albay in the southern section of Luzon island. The perfectly shaped mountain, with a completely regular cone, dominates the scenery for miles around and is to many the very symbol of the Bicol countryside. But at times this time bomb explodes. Over the years, thousands of lives have been claimed by the fiery mountain when the serenity of the countryside has been blasted by molten lava, red-hot ashes and huge, searing boulders, hurled by unimaginable force into the defenseless bamboo dwellings below.
Hence, many long-time residents of the area have a volcano story to tell. And another chapter was added this year. Numerous lives were temporarily disrupted as the time bomb seemed to start ticking once again.
Mayon has erupted violently many times, often causing loss of life. Its most destructive eruption occurred in February 1814, when 1,200 perished in the towns of Cagsawa, Camalig and Budiao. In the area of Cagsawa, a reminder of that disaster is the top part of an old, Spanish-style church. The rest of the building was buried under a hail of boulders and ash, along with the unfortunate parishioners who had run into it, hoping to escape the fury of the eruption.
The last eruption occurred in 1968. Since Mayon has developed the reputation of erupting every 10 years, many were apprehensive about what the year 1978 would bring. In May, their question was answered! On May 3, the gigantic mountain seemed to ‘clear its throat,’ ready for an awakening. During a 24-hour period, 12 tremors were sensed by the ever-alert observation stations around the volcano. Trickles of lava were observed on the southwest side, while tumbling and crushing sounds were heard. White steam and blue gas were issuing from the summit.
On the Alert
Immediately, the area swung into an “alert” situation. About a three-and-a-half-mile (6-km) danger zone around the summit was declared to be off limits, and threatened barrios were mobilized for prompt evacuation. The possible danger to life was very real.
As the condition of the volcano became more threatening, the administration did what it could to prevent a tragedy. Through the media, people were told of the most likely health problems to be expected due to a possible evacuation and the activity of the volcano itself. They were warned of fractures, burns, shock and respiratory ailments, as well as diarrhea and other intestinal disturbances. People heard about the dangers of hot blasts of air from the lava flows, rolling molten rocks, fissures caused by earthquakes and changes in the courses of streams. Individuals having respiratory problems were warned about possible ash showers.
As the area girded itself, the mountain slowly intensified its activity. By May 8, the lava had crept down to the middle portion of the southwestern slopes. On the southern side, volcanic debris was piling up about 2,300 feet (700 m) below the rim of the crater. This brought with it the fear of a mud slide in the event of heavy rains. Some people were voluntarily evacuating their homes and moving into temporary government shelters. Residents of certain areas reported that they could feel the hot air from the lava.
Time to Evacuate!
On May 9, evacuation was ordered for many residents of the southwestern slope—the area most directly threatened by the lava flow. By then, the volcano’s activity was fully reported on in the newspapers. Soon, tourists were flocking into the provincial capital of Legaspi, nine miles (14 km) from the volcano. Seeing the glowing lava, the steam and the smoke, and hearing the rumbling of the huge mountain, were unforgettable experiences. One eyewitness said: “Seen against the dark shadow of the crater at night, the glowing red lava inching down the slopes appears like a giant comet in the sky.” Another commented: “It was as if rivers of gold had started to flow down from a huge fountain, carrying in its stream ruby chips which sparkled every now and then.”
As May progressed, the restless volcano continued to disrupt the lives of the local residents. By May 11, lava was observed on the southeastern slopes. People there were warned of the danger of mud slides and hot rainwater. By the 12th of May, 7,500 people reportedly had been evacuated. For the first time, fire was spewed out of the summit of the mountain, and 42 volcanic quakes were reported during that 24-hour period. There was speculation that the big bang was very near.
Old-Timers Watch the Wild Pigs
However, some were not so concerned. Certain old-time residents noted that the wild pigs and other animals had not yet abandoned their homes in the woods on Mayon’s slopes. Hence, these persons concluded that there was as yet no immediate danger of a major eruption. One old-timer reportedly was unwilling to leave his home. Why? Well, he remembered that in 1968 he had been able to smell the sulphur fumes of the erupting volcano. He felt that there would be no real danger until he could smell those fumes again.
Meanwhile, the mountain’s activity continued. By May 15, big explosions and strong tremors were discernible some 15 miles (24 km) away. Ash clouds were ejected 2,500 feet (760 m) above the summit. Lava had flowed down to the forested area and some trees were being set on fire. Soon heavy ash was forcing more people to leave their homes. One family complained that they could not eat their food because of the ash falling on it. The number of refugees was increasing.
Ash-laden clouds were now rising 5,000 feet (1,500 m) into the air. Reportedly, rocks as big as houses were being ejected 600 feet (183 m) above the crater rim. Streams of flaming, red-hot lava kept moving down the sides of the mountain. Meanwhile, 22 evacuation centers were caring for more than 20,000 evacuees.
Then, suddenly, it all started dying down. Although the underground rumblings continued for a while, and there were a few brief spasms, it was noticed that there was less lava movement and not as much ash. Slowly, as May drew to a close, the huge mountain ended its spectacular display. By early June, apart from a few dribbles of lava, Mayon Volcano was once more a picture of beauty, towering serenely over the green and fertile plains of Albay.
One little girl’s life will be permanently affected by the eruption. Her name, Mayona, will be a constant reminder that she was born during the brief awakening of the mountain. Meanwhile, over 20,000 rural folk were able to leave the evacuation centers. Their lives had been completely disrupted for a few weeks. They had left their houses, wondering if they would ever see them again.
Now, these dwellers beside the volcano are back home, leading normal lives. But perhaps they are keeping a wary eye on their gigantic neighbor, wondering when it will again bring fear and disruption into their lives.
That is what it is like to live beside a towering time bomb!