BANOS, Ecuador – Another violent explosion by Ecuador's Tungurahua volcano was looming, experts said Friday, as rescuers searched through hot rock and smothering ash for 30 people missing a day after a devastating eruption that killed at least one person.
The head of Ecuador's Geophysics Institute, Hugo Yepes, urged everyone to stay away from the 16,575-foot high volcano in the nation's central Andes — including tourists tempted to witness the spectacle.
"There is more potential for it to do very big things. We see that there is a fault in the volcano and it is very unstable with the crater full" of magma, Yepez said. "There is great activity inside."
He said it was "very risky" to approach the volcano, which was poised for another explosion.
"It is not good news that the volcano is calm," geology professor Theofilos Tuulkeridis of Quito's San Francisco University told The Associated Press.
He said Tungurahua, which means "throat of fire" in the native Quechua language, is very active and plugs up at the upper part of its chimney, which causes gases and magma to accumulate. "It is worse the more time that passes with it plugged," Tuulkeridis said.
Civil Defense officials said 30 of 60 people reported missing in the overnight eruption that ended before dawn Thursday had made their way to the homes of friends and relatives in nearby villages.
Police and soldiers continued searching for the remaining 30, who were believed to have been caught by the volcanic eruption that showered the region with incandescent rock and lava, sending thousands of residents fleeing.
Juan Salazar, mayor of Penipe, one of the villages, was quoted by a Quito radio station Friday saying officials had confirmed the death of four family members who had been crushed in their house, which would bring the death toll to five.
"This is an indescribable catastrophe," said Salazar.
But Carlos Puente, governor of Chimborazo province, told the AP on Friday that Civil Defense officials could confirm the death of only one man, who was burned to death when he tried to return to his home to retrieve a television set.
Volcanic ash rained down about 140 miles to the west after Tungurahua's 16,575-foot-high crater filled with magma and then exploded overnight.
"Does God do this in other places or does this only happen here?" Hortensia Chicaiza said Thursday as she desperately searched for food for her livestock in ash-laden vegetation near the town of Queros, 12 miles northwest of the volcano.
Puente said the villages of Bilbao, Juibe Grande, Cusua, Pillate, Palitahua and Puela were either totally destroyed or so severely damaged that they were uninhabitable.
Televised images showed just the tops of electricity poles jutting out from the smoldering pyroclastic flow that smothered 107 homes in Juibe Grande, on the volcano's northwest slope. Authorities said that village's 600 residents escaped.
They were less sure about the many holdouts who refused to heed evacuation orders Wednesday in three hamlets high on the slopes of the volcano, which is some 85 miles south of the capital of Quito.
The pyroclastic flow — superheated material that shoots down the sides of volcanoes like a fiery avalanche at up to 190 mph) — damaged roads and blocked the Patate, Puela and Chambo rivers.
That forced the shutdown of the Agoyan hydroelectric plant about four miles from the volcano, denying power to all or part of four jungle provinces in Ecuador.
Dr. Hernan Ayala said about 50 people from Penipe were treated for injuries caused by falling hot rocks and superheated vapor.
"It was a scene of chaos, a Dantesque situation," Ayala told Ecuador's Channel 4 from a medical center in Riobamba, where many of the victims were taken. "There are six whom we consider the most grave, one of them with burns over 85 percent of the body."
The ash cloud reached almost all the way from the Andes to the Pacific, forcing flights between Quito and Ecuador's largest city of Guayaquil to be suspended due to poor visibility.
Civil Defense officials said about 4,500 people were able to escape the rivers of fire.
President Alfredo Palacio said the government had released $2 million to help people displaced by the eruption.
By daylight, Banos — a popular tourist city of 18,000 at the northeast foot of the volcano — was covered in a thick gray, brown soup, its houses, cars and roads smothered, its trees ripped bare.
Banos resident Gabriela Gonzalez went out at dawn with a cloth bag to collect pieces of volcanic rock that had rained down.
"Later we will sell these to these same gringo" tourists, she said.
After remaining dormant for eight decades, Tungurahua rumbled back to life in 1999 and has been active ever since.