A Volcano Known for Its Beauty Is Also a Killer

The Mayon volcano spewing ash and lava in Albay Province, the Philippines, on Tuesday.
Credit...Jes Aznar for The New York Times

GUINOBATAN, Philippines — Mount Mayon, one of the Philippines’ most active volcanoes, is as renowned for its beauty as it is feared for its destructiveness.

Admired for its symmetry and classic cone shape, the volcano was named for a mythological fairy. But its smooth slopes and cute name belie its deadly nature: Inside is an enormous chamber, churning with molten rock and toxic gas.

And it is ready to blow.

For two weeks Mayon has rumbled, belched plumes of ash and smoke and lit up the night sky with an eerie orange glow.

“It is very hard to sleep at night when you start to hear the explosions,” said Ed Esquivel, 60, a retired police inspector from the village of Bogna, five miles from the crater. “It is like five big airplanes flying around the village.”

A source of pride for the residents of Albay Province on Luzon Island, who rely on its rich soil and tourist dollars, the volcano has recently been upending life here instead. More than 70,000 people had been forced from their homes by Thursday, one of the largest mass evacuations on the island in recent years.

Mr. Esquivel is among the dozens who have ignored the government’s warnings, brushing off the soldiers deployed to take him and his neighbors to shelters several miles away. He has chosen instead to remain at home, keeping an eye on his property and livestock.

It is not out of ignorance that Mr. Esquivel remains. He knows Mayon’s fatal power all too well.

“I’ll always remember the day my father died, on Feb. 2, 1993,” Mr. Esquivel said. “He was among the 73 who died when Mayon erupted while they worked their farms at the foot of the volcano.”

The farmers were killed by a pyroclastic cloud, a wall of superheated gas that can barrel down the sides of a volcano at speeds up to 430 miles per hour, and at temperatures exceeding 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology said that similar pyroclastic flows, tremors and streams of lava had all been detected several times on Thursday. Measurements taken by satellite, it said, indicated that the mountain’s surface had swelled, increasing the likelihood of a major eruption.

The authorities urged residents this week to remain indoors and wear masks. Officials scrambled to establish more than 60 shelters for the growing number of displaced people. Dozens of flights have been canceled, and schools outside the danger zone have set up makeshift classrooms for evacuated children.

“It’s a logistical nightmare,” Claudio Yucot, the regional director for the Office of Civil Defense, told reporters.

But at the base of the mountain, life seems strangely normal — tranquil, even.

Henry Adra, 57, sat outside his hut in the village of Matnog, four miles from the mountain’s peak, surrounded by a grove of fruit trees. The singing of birds and rustling of leaves were interrupted only by the volcano’s rumblings.

Mr. Adra said he had no intention of leaving. He has survived eight eruptions since 1968, and is inured so thoroughly to the volcano’s mood swings that during the last eruption he ran for a closer look at boulders tumbling down the mountain’s side.

“Continue working,” he advised his neighbors. “Evacuate only when you already see the lava flowing to you.”

Mayon has erupted about 50 times in the past 500 years, killing scores of people. Most recently, five climbers were killed in 2013 when they were asphyxiated by ash near the summit.

Despite the terrors posed by pyroclastic clouds and red hot lava, Mr. Adra said there were some things he feared more than the mountain, which has nurtured his family’s fields and trees for generations.

“I am much more afraid of my wife,” he said, “than Mayon erupting.”

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