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Scientists Study “Good Lake” That Killed 1,500; Survivors Recall Disaster

August 29, 1986

WUM, Cameroon (AP) _ Joseph Anang, hitchhiking a ride home on a Cameroon army truck, remembered Lake Nios the way it was before it erupted with lethal volcanic gases that wiped out his entire family.

They used to call it ″the good lake,″ he said.

″There are two lakes together: one big, one small. They called the big lake, Nios, the good lake because the water is good to drink. The other one is dirty. We call it the bad lake,″ he said.

It was the good lake, in which Anang swam as a boy, that spewed a deadly cloud of vapors Aug. 21, killing more than 1,500 people and turning the lake’s clear blue waters into a muddy reddish brown.

Anang said his parents and siblings died in Nios village from the deadly gas, but that his wife and 2-year-old child in Ise, a nearby village, survived the disaster.

International teams of scientists are studying the chain of events that led to the disaster and interviewing survivors in an attempt to identify the gas or gases that killed much of the local population.

Anang, a 26-year-old student working for the civil service who has been away from home for five months, talked to a reporter during a three-hour, 60- mile ride from the provincial capital of Bamenda through tropical rain forests to the remote region of northwest Cameroon near the Nigerian border.

The truck carried tents and a squad of 10 volunteer soldiers from neighboring Zaire to a hospital at Wum, about 20 miles from the disaster area, as part of an international relief effort that appeared to be moving smoothly despite primitive roads and communication.

Supplies from the United States, Canada and France began reaching the stricken region Thursday, said Neil Walsh, U.S. Embassy public affairs officer. He said the relief effort was ″going splendidly. The direction, coordination and control are being well carried out by Cameroonians on the ground. No one is exposed to the weather or going hungry.″

Tents, tin cans of food, and other equipment were seen being unloaded from transport planes at Bamenda. Initial shipments of medical supplies from Israel were in evidence at Wum hospital.

The hospital, a compound of single-story huts, has become a kind of refugee center. Although about 100 survivors from Nios and two other stricken villages are well enough to be released, they have no place to go, doctors said.

People lay listlessly on matresses or woven mats on the concrete floors or sat on iron-frame beds and recalled the disaster in subdued tones.

Philip Ngong, 32, said he fainted from the gas and lay unconscious for more than 24 hours.

″I didn’t wake up until Saturday. I saw some people in the yard already dead: my brother, his wife and three children, my sister and her children. I had nothing to do. I was out of my senses. On Sunday I buried my people. Then they brought me here on Monday,″ he said.

Ngong, a carpenter from Souboum, about five miles from Nios, said the first blast of gas smelled like exhaust fumes. Benjamin Dom said he thought the smell was like gun powder.

Michael Wiener, an Israeli army doctor, said the most common ailments of the survivors were pneumonia and chemical burns, but that none appeared life threatening.

In Geneva, the Office of the U.N. Coordinator for Disaster Relief said 5,000 survivors needed help and the International Red Cross appealed for at least $300,000 in emergency aid.

Gov. Fai Francis Yengo, who is in charge of the relief operation in Wum, said most of the human victims had been buried in mass graves but thousands of rotting animal carcasses remained a health hazard.

French vulcanologist Haroun Tazieff, a former minister for national calamities, said the probable cause of most deaths was a concentraiton of carbon dioxide.

″It reacts immediately on the brain. You are actually knocked out,″ he told reporters as he flew to Bamenda to lead the scientific study of the event.

He said the mixture of dangerous gases probably included odorous sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide.

Scientists also are expected to assess the risk of a future eruption in any of about 20 volcanic lakes in the region.

In August 1984, 35 people were killed by gas emitted from Lake Monoum south of Yaounde.

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