SOUBOUM, Cameroon — Many of the more than 1,500 people killed when a deadly bubble of gas burst from Lake Nios lie in shallow graves today, but thousands of unburied, rotting animal carcasses fueled fears of a possible epidemic.
Lt. Gen. James Tataw, who is heading clean-up efforts in the isolated northwest area of this tropical African nation, said Tuesday that he was worried rains would spread disease because there had been no time to bury the dead livestock.
He said bulldozers were en route to dispose of the carcasses, but added, "The cows have no relatives. Their burial will be the last. Priorities are for people."
Israeli army teams dispatched to the disaster scene said the fumes killed more than 7,000 cattle.
Buried on the Spot
Soldiers, working in stifling heat, shoveled the human casualties into shallow graves near where they had fallen.
"Some of them were in such a state that it was difficult to touch them," Tataw said.
Scientists speculated that steam laced with toxic gases wafted over a 10-square-mile area, burning and smothering victims after a huge bubble of gas burst through the surface of Lake Nios at about 9 p.m. Thursday.
The lemon-shaped lake lies in a basin with steep rock walls on three sides. Viewed from a helicopter Tuesday, it had the reddish-brown color of clay churned up from the bottom.
No sign of life could be seen in a lake-side village of clay brick huts.
The lush green mountains and tropical forests appeared untouched.
Lying in Yards
Gideon Taka, one of the first government officials to reach the stricken area, said he found most of the victims lying dead in their front yards with their clothing ripped.
Tataw took reporters to a two-room shack with a mound of freshly turned earth near the door and a single chicken strutting through the house.
"In this grave, I buried eight people yesterday," he said. "All the people, the goats, the pigs and the cows died. What surprises me is how that chicken survived."
In the village of Nios, a half-mile down the slope from the lake, officials said 1,000 people were killed. To their knowledge, only one woman and her child survived.
In Souboum, on the floor of the valley and about five miles from the lake, about 300 people died, while those living on higher ground survived, said Taka, chief of staff of Cameroon's ground forces.