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First Eyewitness Accounts : Corpses Littering Ground, Villages Devoid of All Life : Continuing Threat Seen in Cameroon

August 26, 1986|Associated Press

YAOUNDE, Cameroon — In the first eyewitness accounts of the gas disaster in the Cameroon highlands, where 1,543 people were killed, survivors today told of seeing the ground covered with corpses and entire villages devoid of life.

Worst hit was Nios village, where about 700 people lived beside the volcanic lake of the same name in this West African nation.

Lake Nios' usually clear waters were bright red. Scientists said this may be a warning of continuing volcanic activity that could reactivate the chain of events which spewed deadly gas into the air last week.

A French rescue team that reached the scene today reported only two survivors in Nios, 200 miles northwest of Yaounde. A few hundred yards away, there was not one victim among the inhabitants of Upper Nios, a separate village on high ground, the French said.

French and Israeli doctors said their main concern is preventing an epidemic. Helpers buried victims in mass graves. Dead animals were hurriedly interred.

Serious Lung Lesions

More than 7,000 dead cattle were counted, Israeli rescue workers said.

The program director of Cameroon's state radio, refusing to be further identified, said "many people" are being evacuated.

One doctor said many survivors have serious lung lesions and are in danger of getting pneumonia. The few hospitals in the region overflowed with hundreds of casualties, some sleeping two or three in a bed.

In Geneva, the Office of the U.N. Coordinator for Disaster Relief said that 1,543 bodies have been counted and that others are still being discovered.

Its figures showed 300 people hospitalized and 20,000 in all affected.

Kenneth Kritby, a Canadian Baptist missionary in Wum, said after visiting the nearby disaster site Tuesday that many bodies remained in the grass and mud huts and went unreported because no relatives were alive.

High Ground Safe

In the lakeside village of Soubo, he said, more than half the Baptist congregation of 300 people died, "but . . . no one living on higher ground was affected."

Disaster investigator Francois Leguern of the French National Center for Scientific Research said the red lake water is due to particles of laterite mud, indicating continuing underwater volcanic activity.

Leguern said the disaster was caused by a huge bubble of heavy volcanic gas long trapped in the lake and released by an explosion deep down in the waters of the long-dormant crater.

"The gas was heavier than the air, so those on low ground were the first victims," he said.

"It was as though a neutron bomb had exploded," Father Fred Tern Horn was quoted as saying by the British Broadcasting Corp. "Nothing was destroyed, but every living thing was killed."

Missionary's Account

Horn, a Dutch Roman Catholic missionary, said he traveled with a group from his mission station in Wum to the stricken area 30 miles away.

"In the first village we came to, we found men, women and animals stretched out dead on the ground, some in front of their huts or in their beds, some on the road," he said.

"Some . . . inhabitants tried to flee," he reported. "Others didn't even have the time to do that."

Horn said all witnesses agreed that the blast occurred late Thursday, not Friday as reported earlier. Because of distance, poor highways and no telephones, news of the disaster failed to reach the outside world until the weekend.

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