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River of Lava Kills Scores, Chases Thousands in Congo

Disaster: Goma, a city of 350,000 on the Rwandan border, is devastated. New eruptions feared.

January 19, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOMA, Congo — A fast-flowing river of lava more than a mile wide sliced through this border city Friday, a day after a towering nearby volcano erupted in a torrent of molten flame. Scores of people were feared dead and about half a million others were forced to run for their lives.

Goma, a city of more than 350,000, and 14 surrounding villages were devastated when 11,380-foot Mt. Nyiragongo erupted early Thursday.

Some initial estimates put the number of deaths at about 50, but United Nations officials said it could be days before the final toll is known.

Late Friday, thousands of refugees lined the streets of Gisenyi, across the border in Rwanda. Covered with blankets and tattered clothing, they rested anywhere they could find shelter. Many slept in trees. Others settled on patches of grass under a starless sky.

At one gas station, masses of refugees huddled close together, covering every available bit of ground.

Even as they tried to sleep, Mt. Nyiragongo glowed and rumbled in the background. Violent tremors shook the earth in five-minute intervals, a reminder that more eruptions could be in store. Babies cowered next to their mothers, shrieking every time the ground rocked.

A 12-year-old boy named Eddie recounted how he and his six siblings outran the fast-moving lava.

"I saw my house go up in flames, so we started running," he said. "Now we are sleeping outside. I don't know where my father or my mother is."

One man said his home and other buildings near the Goma airport were obliterated. "The lava floated into my home," said Jalume Souleousou. "There's nothing left. Everything is charcoal, charcoal, charcoal.

"We'll never be able to clean up this mess and organize our life," he said. "When the lava becomes cold, it's going to be a wall of stone in Goma."

Entire banana plantations went up in flames in the lava's path. Gas stations exploded as if to mimic the 2-mile-high volcano, only 11 miles north of Goma in Virunga National Park.

CARE International said it was mobilizing emergency services and provisions, such as shelter, blankets, health care and sanitation, to meet immediate needs.

"Goma is flat, black and burning," said Anne Morris, CARE's director in Rwanda, after a flight over the city. "At least 50% of housing is gone, government buildings, schools, clinics, banks--all destroyed. People are arriving empty-handed and in need of immediate assistance.

"Given the large numbers of refugees in a small area, shelter, sanitation, health and security issues are of paramount concern," Morris said.

Nyiragongo is considered one of Africa's most violent volcanoes and has spewed quick-flowing lava in the past.

In 1977, a lake of molten lava that had existed inside the crater for more than 80 years suddenly drained through fissures that opened on the mountain's flanks. The lava flowing down the mountain's flanks raced along at up to 40 mph, killing about 70 people.

In 1982, the lava lake began refilling in part of the crater and in 1994 it again spurred rapid flows through fissures.

In Seattle, Chris Newhall, a geologist and volcanic expert with the U.S. Geological Survey, said Friday that he doubts the lava was traveling as fast this time as some reports indicated.

"It spreads out and goes slower as it moves," Newhall said. But he added that lava moving along at even 3 mph is terrifying to behold.

Goma is on the shores of Lake Kivu, which has methane and carbon dioxide in its depths. There is some fear that if the lake were invaded by lava, the methane could rise to the surface, releasing a suffocating cloud of gas over the city.

Newhall said a catastrophic release of gas could be caused by a huge lava flow into the lake, but he said the chances of that happening this time were unlikely.

Goma's population has fluctuated wildly in the last decade. In 1994, a million Rwandan Hutu refugees, among them extremist militia members responsible for the genocide in their country, engulfed the city as they fled Rwandan Tutsi rebels.

Many of the thousands of refugees who crossed the border into Gisenyi on Friday made that same journey in the other direction in 1994.

Goma is now controlled by the Rwandan-backed Rally for Congolese Democracy, or RCD, which in a Friday radio broadcast urged all residents to leave town.

"We are declaring a state of emergency and urge people not to return to their homes because of the losses," the rebel group's Adolphe Onusumba said in a broadcast from the devastated city.

Most residents did flee, but some stayed behind to loot stores and houses. Some refugees carried mattresses on their heads and live chickens in their arms and whatever belongings they could salvage.

Rwandan Interior Minister Jean de Dieu Ntiruhungwa called on the international community for assistance.

"The consequences for Rwanda are huge," he said, "but we are obliged to help."

Britain said Friday that it would give $2.9 million to help the victims. International Development Secretary Clare Short said $1.4 million had been "immediately allocated" to humanitarian agencies on the ground in Congo.

*

Times staff writer Kenneth Reich in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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