5 dead as Philippine volcano spews ash, rocks

MANILA, Philippines — Four foreign tourists and a local guide were killed Tuesday when a Philippine volcano ejected ash and rocks in a sudden explosion as they trekked the peak, officials said.

Twelve people were injured by the eruption of Mount Mayon in Albay province, 217 miles southeast of Manila, one of the country’s most active volcanoes, provincial governor Joey Salceda said.

Salceda said the foreign fatalities were three German nationals — two men and a woman — and a Spanish woman who was a resident of Germany.

The fifth fatality was a Filipino guide, he added in a report to the tourism secretary. A total of 27 people were trekking on the volcano when the explosion occurred, according to the Office of Civil Defense.

Salceda said seven of the injured had been rescued while five were still waiting to be evacuated.

The other hikers were from Austria, Thailand and Indonesia.

Marti Calleja, a tour operator who organized the climb for a group of four Germans and one Austrian, said the foreign tourists had stayed overnight at Mayon.

“They were half a kilometer from the summit when the explosion occurred,” he said by phone. “They were actually on their way down.”

“It literally rained rocks on them, and the rocks were as big as a dinner table,” he said. “They were reportedly pinned down by the rocks, and those who survived are very, very lucky.”

The rocks could have been dislodged from the crater by the phreatic explosion, which spewed gray-to-brown clouds of ash and steam more than 1,600 feet above the summit, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

“This is not related to magma rise,” said Renato Solidum, the institute’s director. “We are not raising the alert level unless we monitor changes in the volcano, which we don’t see now.”

Phreatic explosions are caused when water comes into contact with molten rock underground, turning it instantly into steam and propelling it into the air, often mixed with soil, ash, mud, rock fragments and gases.

“No volcanic earthquake was detected within the past 24-hour observation period,” the institute said. “Seismic and gas emission parameters remain within the background levels and indicate no intensification of volcanic activity.”

Salceda said he has suspended any climbing activities at Mayon to allow local authorities to consult with volcanologists and reassess the danger.

“Whenever you climb a mountain, there is a risk that rocks would fall on you or you would fall somewhere,” he said. “But we have to re-check the parameters of climbing at Mayon. There was zero alert, so climbing was allowed. Unfortunately, this happened.”

The volcano, famous for its nearly perfect cone, has erupted about 50 times since 1616. It last erupted in July 2006, forcing more than 30,000 people to flee their homes.

Mayon’s most violent eruption on record was in 1814, when more than 1,200 people were killed and a town was buried in volcanic mud. An eruption in 1993 killed 79 people.