Nature's fury chases out thousands in Philippines

June 16, 1991|By Bob Drogin | Bob Drogin,Los Angeles Times

ANGELES, Philippines -- Hundreds of thousands of people fled in terror yesterday from the combined wrath of an angry volcano, numerous earthquakes and a fierce typhoon that washed out bridges, destroyed homes, flooded villages and scattered thick ash for hundreds of miles.

In an awesome display of nature's power, day turned as black as midnight by midafternoon across central Luzon island and as far south as Manila as a relentless, hard rain of golf-ball-sized pumice, pebbles and ash poured down.

Thunderclaps and jagged streaks of lightning alternated with brilliant orange flashes from nearly non-stop eruptions of Mount Pinatubo.

The last 900 U.S. personnel were evacuated from Clark Air Base, deserting one of America's oldest and largest overseas bases for the first time since World War II. Officials also decided to begin evacuating up to 8,000 dependents taking shelter at Subic Bay Naval Base, where the sun never appeared yesterday and up to a foot of ash fell.

The Associated Press reported that two people died when about 50 temporary storage buildings collapsed at Subic yesterday from the accumulation of 6 to 12 inches of ash. The names of the two -- a U.S. dependent and a Philippine national -- were withheld pending notification of their families, said a Subic Bay .. spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Kevin Mukri.

At least 10 minor volcano-driven earthquakes rocked the area and were felt 60 miles south in Manila, where gray-white ash covered the capital's streets, cars and rooftops like snow. The international and domestic airports were closed until further notice because of volcanic ash in the atmosphere.

Six people died today when a church collapsed in Dau, near Clark, and eight people were killed when a hospital roof collapsed under the weight of accumulated ash in Olangapo, near Subic, officials and reports said.

The casualties raised to 34 the death toll from a week of the volcanic eruptions, a typhoon and earthquakes, the Associated Press reported.

At least 10 minor volcano-driven earthquakes rocked the area and were felt 60 miles south in Manila, where gray-white ash covered the capital's streets, cars and rooftops like snow. The international and domestic airports were closed until further notice because of volcanic ash in the atmosphere.

Bizarre wind patterns heightened the difficulties. The typhoon, which weakened to a tropical storm as it swept north of the volcano, drew low-lying clouds of ash to the north and east, while prevailing winds carried higher plumes to the south and west. The effect was to dump a blanket of non-toxic silicate ash across most of central Luzon.

As conditions worsened last night, Philippine civil defense officials broadcast warnings to at least a half-million residents of 27 towns and scores of villages in five provinces in central Luzon to flee what they predicted would be even more catastrophic eruptions.

Scientists said that a 1.8-mile-long fissure that has opened on Mount Pinatubo's southern slopes raises the grim possibility that the 4,795-foot volcano may blow itself apart, blasting deadly debris for miles and triggering massive avalanches of super-hot gases and rocks far into the surrounding countryside.

"We are picturing a worst-case scenario," said Ronaldo Arboleda of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology. "The situation is really dangerous. . . . We are not gods, but based on our studies, something not good is about to happen."

The volcano, which was dormant for 611 years, became active last April and began minor eruptions last weekend. Major eruptions started Wednesday and have grown more violent each day since. At least 10 blasts were recorded yesterday until instruments broke down, said Glenda Besana, a government geologist.

The government's evacuation order included parts of both Angeles, which is outside Clark Air Base, and Olangapo, beside the Subic Bay Naval Base. More than 28,000 Americans, including 14,600 evacuated Monday from Clark, were taking shelter at the Navy base.

Subic spokesman Robert Coble said no decision had been made to evacuate the base, which is about 21 miles southwest of the volcano. But families who were evacuated earlier from Clark will be flown back to the United States as soon as transport planes and chartered civilian airliners can land here, he said.

Philippine officials also shut down numerous power relay stations because of the ash, plunging Angeles, Olangapo and surrounding areas into darkness.

Part of a hospital collapsed in Olangapo, as did two crowded bus stations there and in Angeles. Rescuers used chain saws and acetylene torches in Angeles to free scores of people pinned in the rubble. Dozens of schools, buildings and houses also were reported destroyed.

Raging rivers, swollen from typhoon-driven rains, washed away at least four bridges and carried pieces of homes and furniture roaring downstream. At least 19 people were confirmed killed and 50 injured, but the casualty toll was expected to grow. In an evening announcement, the Philippine office of civil defense extended the volcano's danger zone from 18 miles to 25 and urged residents of Olangapo to head south into the Bataan Peninsula. People in Angeles were told to head north and east to seek shelter.

Tens of thousands of people frantically clambered aboard anything with wheels and began to flee on ash-slicked roads in pitch-black darkness.

"We must run away," said Roger Pineda, whose wife, Rosario, fearfully clutched their 3-month-old infant under a tarp as a rain of gravel clattered down. "The volcano is coming."

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