Ecuador Residents Return Despite Warnings of Volcanic Explosion

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Tens of thousands of people fled when a devastating volcanic eruption spewed showers of incandescent rock and rivers of molten lava onto Andean villages.

But peasant farmers of this hamlet returned Friday to recover their few belongings, defying warnings from experts that, though eerily calm, the Tungurahua volcano appears poised to 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.

CountryWatch: Ecuador

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.

At least one man was killed, 30 remained missing and dozens suffered injuries, mainly burns, during the 19-hour eruption that ended before dawn Thursday.

Tungurahua — "throat of fire" in the local Quichua language — was quiet. But geology professor Theofilos Toulkeridis, of Quito's San Francisco University, warned: "It is not good news that the volcano is calm. That is not a good sign."

If Tungurahua remained plugged up "at the upper part of the chimney" it would start to "accumulate gas and magma," he told The Associated Press. "The more time that passes with it capped, the worse it is."

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."

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."

Authorities had ordered the evacuation of a dozen hamlets on the volcano's slopes before the eruption. About 4,500 people were able to escape the rivers of fire — a horrific sight to villagers in the middle of the frigid Andean night — Ecuador's Civil Defense said.

A dozen people were hospitalized Friday for injuries and burns.

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. "I was very frightened when the rocks showered down on my house, but my grandfather told me to be calm, that our little home was good and could withstand it."

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.

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.

"We never thought Tungurahua would awake like this. We feared a big eruption, but not of this magnitude," said Luis Egas, one of a few holdouts who decided to remain in Bilbao, one of the villages nearly destroyed by the eruption.

"We are afraid, but we cannot leave our belongings, what little we have," said Egas, who remained in Bilbao with his parents. A few yards away, volcanic steam rose off an ash-contaminated creek that had supplied the community's irrigation water.

Jorge Ubidia, police captain the town of Cotalo, said Saturday he believed everyone should clear off the volcano's slopes.

"The problem is that people don't want to leave, and we don't know if we should take them out by force," said. "We're very frightened."