PILLATE, Ecuador – Thirty villagers listed as missing following a powerful volcanic eruption in Ecuador's Andes have been found, a civil defense official said Saturday amid warnings the volcano was poised to explode again.
Civil Defense Director Jose Grijalva said at least two people were killed by early Thursday's eruption of Tungurahua volcano, which spewed incandescent rock and rivers of molten lava onto nearby villages, burning many villagers as they fled. He said authorities were still searching for three people believe buried under a collapsed house.
However, the Juan Salazar, village mayor of Penipe, where the people were from, told The AP the body of one of the victims had been recovered.
He said the 80-year-old man's body had been washed away from the village by a waterway that was diverted by built-up volcanic ash. The man was identified in the local morgue, he added.
Grijalva said about 30 people listed as missing have been located by families or in makeshift shelters.
Tens of thousands of people had fled Tungurahua's blasts, but peasant farmers of the hamlet of Pillate returned Friday to recover their few belongings, defying warnings from experts that it would erupt again.
Zoila Freire, 70, wrapped in a dark, ash-dusted shawl, gave a few small guinea pigs — a common Andean staple food — as a gift to a neighbor.
"At least we were able to salvage these little ones so that we have something to give to eat," she said.
A few yards away, two small boys played soccer in Pillate's main square. Shouting and laughing, they appeared oblivious to the transformation of their normally lush green surroundings into a colorless panorama of steel-gray ash.
Tungurahua — "throat of fire" in the local Quichua language — was quiet on Saturday. But Ecuador's Geophysics Institute urged residents and tourists to stay away from the 16,575-foot volcano, some 85 miles south of the capital of Quito.
"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," institute head Hugo Yepes said.
On the outskirts of Pillate, an old man dug into the ash-coated earth with a stick, revealing what had been his garden.
"I want to salvage these onions. It is all we have," he said without looking up. "I don't want to say anything more." He declined to give his name.
At least a dozen villages on the volcano's western slopes were seriously damaged or destroyed. Carlos Puente, governor of Chimborazo province, said Friday that 30,000 to 40,000 people had lived in that zone before the eruption, but that now "no one is left."
Most left or were evacuated before the blast, though some stayed because they fear leaving their possessions behind.
Marco Espinel, a Civil Defense official from Banos — a popular tourist city of 18,000 at the northeast foot of the volcano — said people were not authorized to return to the completely devastated area.
"In the zones that suffered damage from the shower of (incandescent) rock, Civil Defense has allowed people to enter during the day to search for livestock and repair what they can of their homes," Espinel said. "But at night they should return to safe refuge."
Pillate, on the northwest slope, was one of those areas spared a direct hit by the pyroclastic flows — superheated material that shoots down the sides of volcanos like a fiery avalanche at up to 190 mph.
But the rooftops of its two dozen adobe brick and concrete one-room homes bore the scars of fiery rocks that slammed down, leaving scorch-rung holes.
"I am still afraid. I do not want the rocks to fly down or for the volcano to be angry," said 8-year-old Wilson Benavides, sitting by Pillate's small church.
The eruption Thursday was the 14th time Tungurahua has sent hot lava and ash onto villages on its flanks since its first recorded eruption in the Spanish colonial era in 1534. After remaining dormant for eight decades, Tungurahua rumbled back to life in 1999 and has been active ever since.