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Residents Flee Mexico Volcano

December 19, 2000

SANTIAGO XALITZINTLA, Mexico (AP) _ In the strongest eruption in centuries, the volcano that towers over Mexico City ``lit up like a Christmas tree,″ spewing red-hot rocks into the air and sending residents fleeing for shelter Tuesday.

The Popocatepetl Volcano, which awoke from a 70-year slumber in 1994, had a spectacular eruption Monday night that frightened even residents who had disregarded authorities’ pleas to leave the area.

The eruption was the volcano’s largest since A.D. 800, when lava poured from its crater, filling nearby valleys, experts said.

A red plume continued to spew from the mountain’s peak Tuesday, and authorities warned that the crisis wasn’t over. Surrounded by throngs of people, President Vicente Fox visited residents at shelters on Tuesday.

``At first it was pretty. It lit up like a Christmas tree,″ said Tomas Jimenez, a corn farmer. ``Then the fear hit.″

In his 68 years in this village just four miles from the volcano, Jimenez said he has come to see ``Don Goyito″ _ as residents affectionately call the volcano _ as a trusted companion.

But he had never seen such fury.

``It was a little frightening, because Don Goyito was really playing,″ he said.

Jimenez was one of only a handful of people to remain in the ghostly, deserted streets of Santiago Xalitzintla (pronounced Sha-leet-ZEEN-tlah) early Tuesday. Packs of dogs howled at the occasional army patrol or journalist passing by, and the sky was lit by a red glow from the top of the mountain.

Although the volcano began to belch ash on Friday, it wasn’t until Monday night that the 17,886-foot peak, located some 40 miles southeast of Mexico City, began its spectacular shower of incandescent rock.

``We got up on the roof and saw the rocks showering down. I started to get nervous,″ said Cresencio Sandoval, a 55-year-old farmer. ``If it continues, it might be the end of the road for us right here.″

Many of the 41,000 residents of the highest-risk zone who had refused to leave in more than 1,000 buses sent in by authorities decided that finally, it was time to go.

``We aren’t so stupid as to stay here when it gets serious,″ said Cecilio Sevilla, a 26-year-old baker bundled up in a rough blanket.

He and Rita Agustin were married only Saturday and had spent four days celebrating, as local tradition calls for. Although Sevilla’s head still hurt from a hangover, the newlyweds realized early Tuesday it was time to go.

It was unclear how far down the flanks the lava was falling, but it appeared only about a half-mile down the slope.

Fox, speaking after an emergency cabinet meeting Monday night, said some smaller incandescent particles had fallen as far as six miles from the crater.

``We continue on maximum alert, because this emergency is not over,″ Fox said.

Calming fears of an ash fall among the 20 million residents of greater Mexico City, Fox said ``no major atmospheric effects are expected over large cities.″

The volcano spewed a cloud of ash 2 1/2 miles high, but it appeared to be blowing away from Mexico City.

The gritty volcanic dust has carmaker Volkswagen worried. Special measures at its Mexican plant 28 miles to the northeast included sending all finished cars to dealers and shipping ports.

Scientists have warned that a dome of lava at the base of Popocatepetl (pronounced poh-poh-kah-TEH-peh-til) is causing pressure to build inside the mountain. That could trigger strong eruptions.

``It could have been worse if this had been a brief, extremely violent eruption,″ said Servando de la Cruz, a vulcanologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

``In the next few hours, we’ll have to see if more energy builds up. These kind of events could be repeated.″

Even so, some people refused to leave, most for fear that their homes would be looted or their livestock stolen. Many residents say police sent in to guard their belongings during a 1994 evacuation instead stole them.

Jimenez was one of them. He sent his family to Cholula, a city at the volcano’s base, and remained to keep watch on their house.

But he pointed to a battered pickup truck that represented his only escape.

``Here’s my transportation,″ he said. ``At the right moment, I’ll take off running.″

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