LEGAZPI CITY—What was meant to be a fun climb turned into a tragedy for 27 foreign mountaineers and their local guides when Mayon Volcano erupted on Tuesday and spewed hot rocks, killing five of them.
Jukes Nunez of the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office said all 27 people, composed of foreign tourists and local trekking guides, had been accounted for.
As of Tuesday evening, six people had already been brought down, while the rest were on their way to town.
“I heard a very loud sound like thunder. I immediately knew that Mayon had exploded,” said Nicanor Mabao, 18, one of the survivors, who said his group was about 1,600 meters from the foot of the 2,460-meter peak.
“After hearing the loud sound, I saw very big hot boulders coming down at us. The hot rocks then started hitting us,” said the guide from the Bicol Adventure Tours.
He said he felt intense heat.
“My whole body felt numb. All I was thinking of was that I had to go down and get out of there,” he said.
Rescuers took Mabao down in a stretcher at 4:30 p.m. He talked to the Inquirer while being transported from an Army truck to a waiting ambulance.
Mabao suffered severe burns in his left leg. He said he was struck by a hot rock in the head while trying to rescue an Austrian woman, Sabine Stroberger, 32, who likewise survived.
Five of Mabao’s companions—a fellow Filipino guide and four German nationals—were killed. They were caught in the middle of hot rock slide following phreatic, or steam-driven, explosion around 8 a.m.
The fatalities were Jerome Berin, a Filipino guide; and German nationals Joanne Edosa, Roland Pietieze, Farah Frances and Furean Stilfer, according to the Albay Public Safety, Emergency and Management Office.
6-km danger zone
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) has maintained that Mayon was in no danger of erupting even as it reminded the public not to venture into a six-kilometer permanent danger zone.
Steam or phreatic eruption is normal for active volcanos like Mayon. It was just unfortunate that there were mountain climbers near the crater when the volcano spewed ash and steam at the time, said Phivolcs head Renato Solidum.
All the fatalities belonged to a group of 12—three men and two women from Germany and Austria—and seven local guides, including Berin and Mabao. They set off from Barangay (village) Bonga, Bacacay, in the trek organized by Bicol Adventure Tours on Monday.
A Thai tourist, who reportedly got separated from his group, was rescued around 4 p.m. They went up the volcano on Monday from Lidong, Sto. Domingo. Another man and a woman, both Thais, were also injured.
They were supposed to descend also on Monday evening but failed to do so when some of them got lost along the trail.
“That was even before the eruption. So they ended up spending the night there until the eruption this morning when they totally lost contact with each other,” said Fire Officer 1 Mark Cirunay of the Albay Bureau of Fire.
Their Filipino tour guides, Bernard Hernandez and Alex Balunzo, stayed together and were able to descend before noon Tuesday, Cirunay said in a phone interview from the incident command post in Sto. Domingo.
At past 1 p.m., rescuers were able to bring down Thailanders Tanut Ruchipiyarak, 26, and Mithi Ruangpisit, 26. Both had bruises and scratches and were taken to the hospital in Daraga town.
Three more Thai nationals from the group were trapped on the Mayon slopes. They were identified only as Udom, Boochai and Bendjanas. As of
4 p.m., Cirunay said rescuers were able to locate the three at Camp 2, some 1,200 meters from the foot of the volcano.
“It takes three hours to walk from the base camp to Camp 1 and another two hours to reach Camp 2,” Cirunay said.
Rescuers were on their way to fetch the Thailanders, but there was hardly any radio or phone signal, making communication with the base camp difficult, Cirunay added.
“It is also raining hard up there,” he said.
Maria Ravanilla, regional director of the Department of Tourism, said the four German climbers were not cleared to climb the country’s most active volcano.
She said climbs to Mayon had been allowed because the volcano had been placed on alert level 0 by Phivolcs, meaning there is no imminent volcanic activity.
“This is an isolated incident that should not be blamed on Phivolcs as steam explosions are unpredictable,” said Ravanilla in a phone interview.
All tourism activities within the six-kilometer permanent danger zone around the volcano were suspended following the incident. Ravanilla said activities would resume upon the advice of Phivolcs.
Cedric Daep of the provincial disaster risk reduction and management office said the fatalities would be retrieved on Wednesday. He said heavy rains hampered the retrieval operation.
Phivolcs Director Renato Solidum, in a statement said the explosion was phreatic, or steam-driven.
Ashfall was reported in the town of Oas and Ligao City, both in Albay, but residents said the effects were negligible.
George Cordovilla, the lead guide for the Bicol Adventure group, said his nine-member group started their climb from Lidong at 4 p.m. on Monday.
“We reached the crater at 1 a.m., spent the night there and were about 1,400 feet away from the crater when it exploded,” he said.
Authorities suspended rescue and retrieval operations later in the evening.
The retrieval of the fatalities would be done Wednesday, Nunez said. “It would be hard for the search team to move at night, as it is also raining hard in the area.”
Mayon has erupted 40 times. In 2010, thousands of residents were moved to temporary shelters when the volcano ejected ash up to eight kilometers from the crater.
Solidum said no alert was raised after the latest eruption and no evacuation was planned.
Following the incident, President Aquino sought a clarification from local officials on the parameters in Mayon’s danger zone, Malacañang said. “They’re in charge of enforcing it to make sure that nobody gets hurt,” said Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson.—With reports from Maricar Cinco, Mar Arguelles and Jonas Soltes, Inquirer Southern Luzon, and DJ Yap, TJ Burgonio and Marlon Ramos in Manila