Le Mont Mayon, dans la province d’Albay, est beau, unique, majestueux, un cône presque parfait qui nous offre des spectacles qui peuvent être grandioses. Mais ne l’oubliez jamais, c’est également un tueur, un monstre dont les flancs sont recouverts de rocs, de cendre, de lave et de cadavres.

Au tout début du mois de mai de cette année, trois touristes allemands et leur guide se sont fait surprendre par une explosion unique et totalement imprévisible. Le tueur une fois de plus, soignant sa réputation, a accompli son œuvre de mort.

Three German tourists and their Filipino tour guide were crushed to death when one of the Philippines' most active volcanoes spewed a giant ash cloud and a hail of rocks on Tuesday, authorities said.

Twenty-seven people, including at least nine foreigners, were climbing picturesque Mount Mayon when it erupted without warning, and bad weather meant some of them would have to spend the night on its slopes, officials said.

"It rained like hell with stones," local tour operator Marti Calleja quoted an Austrian woman who was among the injured in the ordeal as saying.

"The rocks that came crashing down on them were as big as dining (table) sets," he told AFP by phone.

Calleja said five foreigners and three of his Filipino guides had begun hiking up Mayon just a few hours before the eruption, which sent a thick column of ash 500 metres (1,600 feet) into the air.

Three Germans aged in their 30s, two men and one woman, and one of the guides from his group were killed, he said.

A 22-year-old Spanish woman also sustained "life-threatening" injuries, while the Austrian woman suffered minor bruises, according to Calleja.
Regional police spokesman Superintendent Renato Bataller confirmed the four fatalities, with seven others injured, including four Thais.

Provincial governor Joey Salceda told AFP that while the volcano had calmed down, rescue helicopters were unable to land due to heavy rain and only four survivors had been taken off the mountain.

He said rescuers were forced to start climbing the mountain to reach the injured, and it was unclear when they would be brought down.

Calleja said the foreigners paid about $100 each for an overnight adventure on the 2,460-metre (8,070-foot) Mayon, which is famed for its near-perfect cone but has a long history of deadly eruptions.

A six-kilometre (3 and 3/4-mile) radius "permanent danger zone" is supposed to be enforced around the volcano. But Calleja said the local government allowed people to climb when there were no signs of an eruption.

"Between 300 and 1,000 climbers go here during the peak season from May to August," Calleja said.

Salceda confirmed the arrangement, but said tourists hiking up should still inform the authorities beforehand.

"Mayon is just like any other mountain, and mountaineers assume the same risk as anywhere. But while we allow them to go, they should notify us and seek our approval. In this case, they did not," he said.

Volcanologists described the eruption as a 73-second "steam-driven minor explosion" that was not expected to be repeated anytime soon.

Chief state seismologist Renato Solidum said people living around Mayon did not need to evacuate. He said the explosion was triggered when rainwater made contact with hot ash deposits on the crater mouth.

Residents in towns around the volcano said they were taken by surprise.
"It was so sudden that many of us panicked," Jun Marana, a 46-year-old bus driver and father of two, told AFP by telephone.

"When we stepped out we saw this huge column against the blue sky."
Mayon, about 330 kilometres (200 miles) southeast of Manila, has erupted dozens of times in recorded history.

In 1814, more than 1,200 people were killed when lava flows buried the town of Cagsawa. In December 2009 tens of thousands of villagers were displaced when Mayon spewed ash and lava.
The volcano also erupted in August 2006. There were no direct deaths caused by the explosion, but the following December a passing typhoon unleashed an avalanche of volcanic mud from its slopes that killed 1,000 people.

Mayon Volcano is a major tourist spot not only for Bicol but also for the whole Philippines. This leads some of our countrymen to brag that Mayon has a better shape than Japan’s Mount Fuji, which is truly more photogenic, especially when snow covers its tip, creating a picture that launched a million postcards.

Visitors to Bicol are often told that Mayon is picky and does not show her charms to everyone. Depending on her mood, the great volcano will impress by displaying all majesty or disappoint by hiding partially or even fully behind clouds.

This beautiful volcano may be active but it usually keeps its peace, providing slight occasional earth tremors and hot springs all around her. This week Mayon erupted and killed a number of climbers. That should make spectacular front-page news except that the death toll doesn’t come anywhere close to the 12,000 people who died during the 1814 eruption. In one of the reports of events in the Philippines in the early 19th century, as translated in volume 51 of “Blair and Robertson,” you will find this short text:

“On February 1, 1814, a fearful eruption occurred in the volcano Mayon, which partially or wholly destroyed many villages in Albay and Camarines; hot stones, sand, and ashes were poured forth from the crater, and villages were thus set on fire, and their inhabitants killed. The slain numbered 12,000, besides many more seriously injured; and those who escaped lost all their possessions. The most fertile and beautiful districts of Camarines were converted into a desert of sand.”

History has recorded the various eruptions of Mayon all the way back to 1616. The first to be described at length occurred in July 1766 when Mayon acted up for six days.

Of the many primary sources on Mayon and its eruptions, one of the earliest and most comprehensive is Fedor Jagor’s “Reisen in den Philippinen,” which was first published in Berlin in 1873 and translated from the original German to Spanish and English in 1875. Jagor travelled in southern Luzon and devoted a whole chapter on Mayon. That chapter includes his own account of an ascent on Mayon.

Jagor says that while many Bicolanos had reached the top of the volcano, there were a few or no Europeans at all who had done so. Jagor, citing Bicolanos’ accounts, narrates that the first foreigners to do so were Scotsmen named Paton and Stewart; thus he contradicted the Sociedad Economica de los Amigos del Pais (The Economic Society of the Friends of the Country), which struck a medal to commemorate the ascent in March 1823 by a certain Captain Antonio Siguenza and his companions.

Surely other foreigners had gone there before them, only their feat was not recorded by history.
Jagor says that two Franciscan missionaries climbed Mayon in 1592 to show the Bicolanos that their God or their religion was better than the natives’. Only one of the pair returned and “although he did not reach the summit, being stopped by three deep abysses, made a hundred converts to Christianity by the mere relation of his adventures. He died in the same year, in consequence, it is recorded, of the many variations of temperature to which he was exposed in his ascent of the volcano.”

A description of the Feb. 1, 1814 eruption, drawn from eyewitnesses, is recorded by Jagor as follows:
“At about 8 o’clock that morning, the volcano suddenly belched forth a thick column of rocks, sand and ashes which rapidly rose to a great height… the slopes of the volcano were covered and disappeared from our sight. A river of fire appeared below, threatening to engulf us. People fled in search of higher land. The darkness increased… the fugitives were subjected to falling rocks….

There was no security in the houses because the heated rocks caused fire. Thus were converted into ashes the richest towns of Camarines.

“About 10 o’clock the rain of large stones ceased, substituted by a rain of sand; and (by) 1:30 the noise somewhat diminished and the sky began clearing up. The ground was covered with cadavers and the seriously wounded; in the church of Budiao were 200 persons and in a house of that same town were 35 people. Five towns of Camarines were completely destroyed and the major part of the villa of Albay. Some 12,000 people died, very many were seriously wounded, and those who survived lost all their property.

The volcano had a sad and horrendous aspect; its slopes previously so picturesque and cultivated, could be seen covered with sand; the blanket of rocks and sand had a thickness of from 10 to 12 yards. In the area where Budiao was located, the coconut trees were buried up to their crown…The most beautiful parts of Camarines, the most fertile regions of the province, had been converted into an arid desert of sand.”

Wonder, fear or a mix of both are expressed in the various descriptions of Mayon’s eruptions over the centuries. Mayon is described like a human doing excretory functions: vomits stones, belches smoke, spits lava, etc. The language is colorful and terrifying at the same time, helping us to imagine what happened in the past. An eruption today can be documented by an amateur with a cell phone video that would leave nothing to the imagination or to the beauty of narrative.

“It was like an exploding pressure cooker,” said Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) Administrator Dr. Renato Solidum Jr., of the steam-driven explosion of Mt. Mayon yesterday.

Imagine boiling water in a sealed pressure cooker. The pressure created by steam in the enclosed container can blow the lid off. In the Mt. Mayon incident, rains seeped through the volcano, reaching the hot rocks, and forming steam. The steam was obstructed by a solidified precipitation which caused the explosion, Solidum explained.

Yesterday morning, at around 8, without any unusual activity like an earthquake or gas explosion, that kind of steam eruption and vibration disturbed the Mt. Mayon landscape. It lasted exactly 73 seconds, spewing clouds of gray and brown 500 meters above the summit, he said.

The incident is called a “phreatic eruption,” a normal activity in volcanoes, Dr. Solidum explained. “Steam continuously comes out of a volcano,” he said.

Phivolcs said there is no indication of intensified volcanic activity. Alert Level 0 status remains, which means there is no imminent magma eruption. Solidum said evacuation is recommended when Alert Level 3 is raised.

In any active volcano, the possibility of a steam-driven explosion is always there even at Alert Level 0. Small phreatic explosions, including small steam and ash ejections, may occur suddenly with little or no warning, he said.

He warned the public from entering the six-kilometer radius permanent danger zone (PDZ) because of the threat of sudden steam-driven eruptions and falling rocks at the upper and middle slopes of Mt. Mayon.

The active volcano’s last eruption activity was in December 2009. Phivolcs data showed that Mt. Mayon had recorded 49 eruptions.

He noted, though, the possibility of a phreatic explosion coming ahead of a magmatic eruption, but sometimes that occurs months or even years after the steam-driven activity.

“We will continue to monitor the volcano’s activity. We are looking into several precursors,” he said.

He explained that Mt. Mayon is an open system volcano, which means that lava has a direct, unobstructed path to the mouth of the volcano.

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