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Explosions Show Difficulty of Diverting Lava, Scientist Says

April 13, 1992

ZAFFERANA ETNEA, Sicily (AP) _ Soldiers blew up 1,000 pounds of explosives on Europe’s most active volcano today in an attempt to reroute a stream of lava threatening this village, but a scientist said the blasts had little effect.

A loud boom echoed throughout the valley shortly after noon as the explosives blew up at 15 points along the lava stream oozing down Mount Etna. Scientists planned to detonate more explosives in the afternoon.

Residents of this village of 7,000 people prayed and worried as the steaming black lava reached the last earthen barrier - 800 yards away.

″Only a miracle of the Madonna can save our village,″ said Maria Leonardi, a resident.

Authorities said a plan had been drawn up for the evacuation of dozens of residents, but only two summer houses just outside town were emptied as the lava approached.

Four navy helicopters carried soldiers to the mountainside, where they placed explosives near a trough formed by the lava. The hope was to shatter the wall of the trough, which has funneled the lava into a swift, hot stream.

The explosions showed that breaking up the trough ″will be a very difficult task,″ said Professor Franco Barberi, a volcanologist working with the Civil Protection team.

″The war has just started,″ said Italian navy Col. Giorgio Vassale. ″More and more powerful charges will be needed to slow down the flow of lava and divert it.″

U.S. helicopters from the nearby base at Sigonella were to drop huge concrete anti-terrorism barriers onto the lava tunnel in a further effort to destroy it.

The lava stream has been flowing since mid-Dicember from the snow-capped mountain about 100 miles southeast of Palermo. It has picked up pace sharply in recent days, destroying several acres of woods and fruit trees.

Officials said the stream slowed to about 12 to 15 feet an hour as it reached the third and last dirt barrier defending the town.

However, ″it’s the typical stop and go pace of the stream,″ said army Col. Ferdinando Falco, supervisor of the operation.

In Zafferana Etnea, residents nervously went about their business today, with fish and fruit vendors selling their products along the town’s streets and city gardeners tending bushes and flowers.

Experts said the lava could keep flowing for several months. Some major eruptions in the last centuries have lasted more than a year.

One of the worst, in 1669, reached Catania, about 16 miles away, and killed 20,000 people.

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