Carbon dioxide cloud kills 1746 people in Cameroon
Villagers stay, African lake's gas that killed 1,700 in '86 still venting By Tim Sullivan THE ASSOCIATED PRESS LAKE NYOS, Cameroon It began quietly, with a white mist that bubbled out of this crater lake deep in Cameroon's mountainous interior. The mist formed into a cloud, dropped over a cliff and poured down lush valleys, speeding silently through sleeping villages. Minutes later, the placid lake erupted, spewing out an enormous burst of water that created a 200-foot wave and a concentrated fog of carbon dioxide vented from deep inside the Earth. The cloud blasted through twisting valleys, spreading more than 12 miles. In the villages closest to Lake Nyos, nearly 90 percent of the people in the worst-hit villages were dead, many still in their beds where the gas quietly smothered them. In all, some 1,700 people were killed The exact number remains unknown. . "It's printed on my mind," said Andrew Ewen, a 29-year-old schoolteacher who escaped the gas but lost 15 relatives in the 1986 disaster. "I remember it as the day when everything went wrong." Pipe vents deadly gas On a recent afternoon, a small team of Cameroonian scientists watches from an inflatable boat as a thick jet of water shoots skyward from a raft tethered into the center of Lake Nyos. A plastic pipe, about twice the size of a fire hose, drops from the raft for 670 feet Area residents swim and wash into the calm, steel-gray water, nearly reaching the lake floor. With the water shooting out comes something else: carbon dioxide gas. Fifteen years after Nyos exploded, the lake is slowly very slowly being drained of its danger. In February, an international team of scientists successfully completed the first phase in ensuring Lake Nyos does not blow again, installing a venting system to allow gas to escape, and a lakeshore alarm that wails if carbon dioxide levels are too high. The project, largely financed by a $400,000 U.S. grant, comes none too soon. The reason why can be smelled in the air, tinged with smoke from brush fires set by farmers burning fields ahead of the planting season. The Lake Nyos area may remain officially off-limits to everyone but scientists and soldiers, but hundreds, if not thou despite deadly threat clothes within sight of the de-gassing sands, of people have returned. And so has the gas. "The danger is very high," said George Kling, a scientist with the de-gassing team, speaking from his office at the University of Michigan. "The gas in the lake could be released at any time." Bubbles up from down deep Carbon dioxide, a nontoxic gas that is seldom harmful in small amounts, bubbles up from deep underground, seep-. ing through cracks of old volcanoes throughout Cameroon's mountains. In most places the gas blows out harmlessly, but at Nyos it builds up in enormous amounts on the lake bottom trapped by the weight of the water. Today, scientists say the carbon dioxide levels in Nyos and Lake Manoun, a crater lake about 34 miles away where a 1984 gas eruption killed 37 peo CAMEROON ,.i "i "I Bamenda '"V i Lake Bamrndjing , . Bafousam 0 40 I y, i Nigeria CHAD ' f ' ' JA central ' ( I T AFRICAN REP. Jji OYaoundel Atta&c) CAOOnT7 The Associated Press pipe that vents the lake 's C02 gas. ple, and where scientists will soon install a similar vent are higher than at the time of those disasters. At Nyos, the single pipe is releasing only slightly more gas than naturally seeps into the lake. Scientists say they need four or five additional pipes to sufficiently reduce carbon dioxide levels. However, that could cost $2 million more, and there are no donors in sight. The people around Lake Nyos are impoverished farmers and cattle-herders living in mud-walled homes far from electricity and telephones. Survivors of the 1986 event remember stumbling through corpse-filled villages, getting out of hospitals to find their homes looted of everything from cooking pots to tin roofs. They still talk about strange noises and the stench of sulfur that drifted from the lake that evening. They recall the ru- SOURCE:ESRI AP mors that sped along the area's dirt roads after the explosion, rumors of skirmishes, bombs and villages devoid of life. Still they are back. "Nowhere else we can go" "We have nowhere else we can go," said Celine Nkeng, a bent-over woman hoeing fields of corn and yams a few miles away. "This is the only place where we can grow enough food to feed our children." Many of the people of northwestern Cameroon, the English-speaking minority in this mostly French-speaking nation, are deeply suspicious of their government They wonder if Cameroonian officials are actually to blame. Others suspect supernatural forces. Tales circulate about a lion that lives there protecting an enormous egg, and old people who turned into buffalos and dove into the water. "People don't talk about it much anymore," said David Chia Wamong, 49, who fled his home that August evening, past his neighbors' corpses, "but they keep it in their hearts."