CLARK AIR BASE, Philippines -- U.S. officials launched an emergency evacuation yesterday to the United States of about 20,000 military dependents from two strategic bases facing extensive cleanup and repairs after a 36-hour episode of eruption of Mount Pinatubo that officials called the worst in the Philippines' recorded history.
A seven-ship carrier task force led by the Abraham Lincoln will take nearly all spouses and children of Navy and Air Force personnel in the Philippines within a week to Cebu Island for military flights through Guam to Travis Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif., officials said.
"The object is to get them out as quickly as possible," said Jerry Moore, a spokesman at Subic Bay Naval Base, where more than 30,000 Americans have taken shelter. U.S. Embassy spokesman Stanley Schrager described the evacuation as temporary, but added, "Nobody knows for sure yet."
Mount Pinatubo belched smoke and shuddered with earthquakes under ominous dark clouds yesterday, but its fury seemed to have subsided, said Raymundo Punongbayan, head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanolgy and Seismology.
"For this episode, the worst is over," he said. "But it's not over yet."
He said that scientists were unable to monitor the volcano's status, however, since all equipment and monitoring stations were abandoned or destroyed during violent eruptions that began Friday afternoon and lasted until early yesterday, showering a blizzard of coarse gray ash across Luzon province and as far away as Cambodia. A typhoon and numerous earthquakes compounded the disaster.
Mr. Punongbayan described Mount Pinatubo's eruption after 611 years as "the biggest we've ever experienced in recorded history." He said the volcano had expelled so much ash over the last two days that a new blast would be less severe.
But after a night of terror, tens of thousands of Filipinos fled south from the devastated area on overloaded trucks, cars, buffalo carts and even a front-end loader. Thousands were on foot, carrying infants wrapped in ragged towels as winds whipped ankle-high grit into a blinding mist. Two men, each missing a leg, limped desperately down the road on crutches, while another slogged through the muck in a wheelchair.
Virtually every roadside tree for miles was down, and deep ruts and potholes quickly turned ash-clogged roads into a bone-jarring obstacle course. A government-ordered evacuation was further hampered by the collapse of at least four bridges, forcing many to wade nervously through fast-running muddy water.
Reports of the death toll varied from 34 to 99, including eight who were crushed when a portion of Olangapo's general hospital collapsed, and six others found in the rubble of a church in Dau, near Clark Air Base. At least 10 were reported buried in massive mud flows. Others died in evacuation centers, bus terminals, schools and homes.
Dozens of homes, factories and restaurants collapsed in nearby Angeles, where abandoned cars were buried in ash up to the hubcaps. The infamous warren of bars, restaurants and brothels outside Clark was deserted. Residents shoveled off ash-laden rooftops; but there was no electricity, and streets were eerily empty after sunset.
The eruptions dropped up to a foot of thick gray ash, pebbles and egg-sized pumice on Subic Bay Naval Base, about 21 miles south of the volcano. About 50 buildings collapsed from the weight of the volcanic debris, killing an American girl and a Filipino housemaid. Base electricity was off yesterday, and water supplies remained intermittent.
"The facility has been badly hurt," said Mr. Moore. "Even the jungle is devastated. We're talking about sticks."
Closer to the volcano, Clark Air Base looked like a vast moonscape,with about 6 inches of concrete-like ash covering roads, roofs and runways. Ragged scrubland and manicured lawns had the same bleak blanket of hard gray crust.
"Everything looks like a wasteland," said Philippine Brig. Gen. Leopoldo Acot Jr., commander of about 150 Philippine troops guarding the nearly deserted base.
As he spoke, an aide tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me, sir," he said politely. "There's another earthquake."
General Acot paused as the ground briefly heaved and swayed. "Yes, an earthquake," he said calmly. "Now where was I?"
Nearby, a large tin-roofed double Quonset hut had collapsed from the heavy ash. General Acot's aide, Col. Jose Balajadia, estimated that up to 40 buildings on the base had been damaged.
"It's a disaster," said Col. Art Corwin, deputy chief of base security, one of the few Americans who returned to Clark yesterday, a day after a skeleton crew of Americans abandoned the base at the height of the eruptions. Nearly 15,000 base residents had been evacuated to Subic Bay last Monday.
"We moved back this afternoon, and unless there's another eruption, we intend to stay," Colonel Corwin said. In the distance, a U.S. flag fluttered over a base cemetery.