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Volcano Expert Foretold the Inevitable, but No One Cared

Congo: Warnings of an eruption went unheeded and scores died. More are killed in gas station inferno.

January 22, 2002|DAVAN MAHARAJ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GOMA, Congo — Dieudonne Wafula is a prophet whose predictions were not respected in his own land.

Only last week, the Goma volcanologist warned local authorities that the 11,380-foot Mt. Nyiragongo volcano was going to erupt--and soon. No one heeded his warning, and four days later the volcano unleashed its fury on this eastern Congo town.

Red-hot lava covered about 40% of Goma, killing scores of people and displacing half a million. U.N. officials have said it could take weeks before they know how many people died.

On Monday, other volcano experts and aid workers were praising Wafula's work. "Wafula has done a beautiful job with limited equipment," said Jacques Durieux, a French volcanologist who is advising the United Nations on Nyiragongo.

Ross Mountain, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy to the disaster area, said the world body will use research by Wafula and other volcano experts in determining how to help victims of the eruption.

Even as relief officials were deciding how to respond, bodies continued to pile up.

Dozens of people were incinerated Monday as they looted gasoline from a downtown station. Witnesses said the blaze started when gasoline spilled onto hot lava from a can being carried by a teenage boy.

People in Goma gathered to watch giant fireballs from the explosion soar into the air. "I could see the young boy burning," said Herman Zagabe, who fled the inferno. "A lot of people were trapped inside [the station] and they didn't get out."

The vast majority of refugees who crossed the Congolese border into Rwanda after the volcano erupted have returned to their ravaged hometown. Many lack food, water and shelter. Local leaders and the displaced say the U.N. has been slow to respond to their needs.

"We are desperate and can't find the United Nations," said Charles Mesafiri, a warden who protects rare mountain gorillas that live in the nearby hills.

Mountain, the special envoy, said the U.N. faces a major challenge in trying to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees. Providing relief services to people in Goma will send a message that the city is safe, he said.

But Durieux, who runs the Group for the Study of Active Volcanoes in Lyons, France, said that even though tremors could still be felt several times a day in Goma and surrounding areas, Nyiragongo posed no known immediate threat.

"The phase of the active eruption is over," said Durieux, who spent a couple of hours Monday viewing the volcano with Wafula from a U.N. helicopter. "The volcano is quiet."

Durieux said he had received an e-mail from Wafula on Jan. 14 saying Nyiragongo was about to erupt.

The French expert was not the only one to receive Wafula's warning. In a recent issue of a monthly Goma newspaper, Wafula warned local residents that they could expect an eruption in coming weeks.

He said he made his prediction after observing that there was 10 times more lava in the volcano's crater than in 1977, when Nyiragongo erupted and killed hundreds of people.

After small earthquakes rocked the area early this month, Wafula said, he knew that the eruption was just days away.

Wafula, 48, has been tracking Nyiragongo and a nearby volcano since the 1970s. Over the years, his monitoring equipment has been stolen and vandalized, yet he has persisted.

Several months ago, Wafula told leaders of the Congolese Rally for Democracy, the rebel group that controls Goma, that they should have an emergency plan to cope with an eruption. Wafula and the rebels said that Japanese experts were brought in but that they discounted the predictions.

Wafula acknowledged that the attention being paid to his work means he will probably get better equipment to predict eruptions.

Asked whether the authorities and Goma residents would heed his warnings next time, he chuckled and said: "Certainly. They'll have to."

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