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Montserrat Residents Fear Volcano

October 11, 2002

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SALEM, Montserrat (AP) _ Neighborhoods at the base of Montserrat’s rumbling Soufriere Hills volcano stood deserted as residents confronted the familiar quandary of rebuilding their lives.

The volcano’s lava dome has grown to dangerous levels, reaching its highest point in recent times _ 1,640 feet high and nearly a mile wide. Scientists say that dome could crumble and cascade in pyroclastic flows, destroying homes along the volcano’s north side.

By the time evacuation sirens sounded Wednesday to signal the area’s indefinite closure, only goats and chickens roamed the streets.

``In the past two weeks we’ve seen constant activity. It’s been like a freight train,″ said scientist Peter Dunkley of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory. ``If the dome collapses to the north, it could be a mess.″

The volcano awoke in 1995, causing numerous evacuations and more than half the population to flee this British Caribbean territory. Two major eruptions in 1997 killed 19 people and buried much of the south, including the capital, Plymouth.

``I don’t want to go through that again,″ said Shawn Archibald, 25, who was living in Plymouth and fled before it was destroyed.

``When the collapse started, it was so dark from the ash, you couldn’t see to move. You had to stay still for hours until the ash cleared.″

About 60 people, including Archibald and his 3-year-old son, Shawn, signed up for government shelter, which offers each family a large room with a kitchen.

The Soufriere volcano is the Caribbean’s only active volcano on a populated island. Another 15 volcanoes in the region are dormant, except for the underwater Kick ’Em Jenny Volcano near Grenada.

For two weeks, the Soufriere has coughed clouds of gray ash that cover buildings, cars and trees across the island, which is between Antigua and Guadeloupe. Many people wear surgical masks over their mouths and noses.

Most Montserratians have abandoned the island altogether, although its north end is safe from the volcano’s dangers, which include mud flows, lightning and intense heat that can ignite fires.

A population that reached 11,000 in 1995 has dropped to about 4,000, with many people moving to nearby islands or to Britain.

This week’s evacuation zone includes Old Towne, Isle’s Bay, Waterworks, Happy Hill, and lower Friths, all declared off-limits until further notice.

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