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Volcano Forces Ecuador Evacuation

October 20, 1999

BANOS, Ecuador (AP) _ At night, Tungurahua volcano growls and roars above this picturesque tourist town, but only a handful of people are left to hear it.

Banos, famed for its hot springs and mountain trekking, is a virtual ghost town after authorities placed the area under an ``orange alert″ on Saturday, warning that the volcano was likely to erupt within days or weeks.

Troops moved residents out of town, but three priests and their assistants remained behind.

They are keeping watch over a statue of the town’s patron, the Virgin de Agua Santa, which townspeople believe has saved Banos during previous eruptions of Tungurahua.

In 1886, rivers of lava from the volcano threatened to bury the town, but the people prayed to the Virgin of Sacred Water and Banos was spared. Since then, townspeople have turned to their patron for protection whenever Tungurahua threatens.

``Nothing will happen to Banos while the Virgin de Agua Santa is here,″ the Rev. Neptali Acosta said.

For days, the snowcapped volcano has spewed a steady column of smoke, ash, water vapor and sulfur into the sky.

``You can hear the volcano roar at night like a rushing river,″ said Jose Torres, a young man from Cotalo, a nearby hamlet.

Experts say the emissions and rumbling are a prelude to an imminent eruption, and government officials are poised to call a ``red alert″ _ a warning that people have only hours to escape.

A lava eruption could engulf and incinerate Banos within 10 minutes, scientists say.

The town’s 17,000 residents, along with 8,000 people living in a half dozen nearby villages and scattered hamlets, followed the mandatory evacuation order, hauling furniture and personal belongings in their hasty exodus.

A lone dog wandered the empty streets Tuesday.

In the town’s small zoo, authorities started transferring bears, tapirs, condors and jungle birds out of harm’s way.

The still-present patrols of police and soldiers had already gone house-to-house, ordering stubborn residents who wished to remain to leave.

Many of the evacuated people were taken to shelters in Ambato, a bustling Andean city of 300,000 people, 20 miles northeast of the volcano and 75 miles south of the capital, Quito.

Residents who were evacuated and taken to shelters expressed anguish at being forced to abandon their homes and farm animals, their only source of income.

``We do not know if we will return to our houses or if the volcano will take them,″ Hortencia Guaman, 55, said tearfully.

``Our house and our animals are everything we have,″ said her husband, Juan Alvarez, who was lying on a mattress on the shelter floor. ``If the volcano explodes, we will be left with nothing.″

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