LEGAZPI (Reuters) - One of the Philippines' deadliest volcanoes erupted Thursday, sending rivers of fire surging down its slopes, darkening towns with ash falls and forcing about 30,000 people to flee, officials said.
Mayon volcano in the central Philippines, which has been steadily building in activity since it reawakened last summer, unleashed 14 separate eruptions throughout the day but no casualties had yet been reported.
The volcano, 190 miles southeast of Manila, hurled burning rocks and ash 6 miles into the sky.
Some of the volcanic material fell back to the mountain's slopes to gather in superheated torrents as hot as 1,650 Fahrenheit that roared downhill at about 50 mph, vulcanologists said.
President Joseph Estrada was to have flown to affected areas but cancelled the trip after the airport in the provincial capital of Legazpi was forced to close due to the airborne rocks and ash.
Day Turns To Night
The fiercest of the eruptions, occurring at mid-morning, threw up a mushroom cloud of ash which blotted out the sun, casting foothill towns into darkness and forcing vehicles to use their headlights, relief officials said.
''I was cooking when the sky suddenly turned dark,'' said Luz Perela, who fled her home in Mayon's foothills after the fireworks began.
''I could not see my surroundings. I just abandoned my cooking and ran outside with my children. It was so scary... that's why we are here,'' Perela said while waiting for a government truck to take her to a refugee center 10 km (six miles) from Mayon.
As evening fell, rains began pelting the volcano and vulcanologists warned of possible mudflows down Mayon's flanks if the rains intensified.
''We have raised the alert to the maximum level of five, meaning a hazardous eruption is in progress,'' chief of the Philippine Institute of Vulcanology and Seismology, Raymundo Punongbayan, told Reuters.
Waves of tremors shook Mayon as it began erupting in the early hours of Thursday, unleashing rumbling sounds heard by residents as far away as Legazpi, 7 miles from the crater.
''It's like a stampede of horses,'' a Legazpi resident said of the noises. Others compared the sounds to the booming of cannon.
Relief agencies said a patient at a local hospital may have died of a heart attack amid the volcano's thunderous rumblings.
Relief officials used military lorries and dump trucks to ferry people from their villages to evacuation centers.
Tens Of Thousands Flee
Provincial officers said about 5,000 people living on Mayon's slopes had been evacuated before the eruption but by nightfall Thursday, refugee centers had swelled with more than 29,000 evacuees.
A Reuters television and picture crew driving toward foothill villages saw hundreds of people, many of them children, clustered along roadsides waving at passing military trucks to take them from the area.
Clutching their meager belongings, they looked gaunt and sleepless. Some wore slippers, others were in their bare feet.
The truck drivers rolled past them, saying their priority was to evacuate people living closer to the flaming crater.
Mayon has a history of violent eruptions, the worst occurring in 1814 when flaming ash killed some 1,200 people. It killed 77 villagers in its last major eruption in 1993.
Located in rice- and coconut-growing Albay province, the 8,000-foot Mayon is one of 22 active volcanoes in the Philippines.
Mount Pinatubo killed about 800 people in 1991 in one of the world's biggest volcanic blasts of the 20th century. Another volcano, Taal, killed more than 1,300 in a 1911 blast and another 200 in 1965.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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