A clueless morning radio host called it a “priapic explosion,” which naturally elicited giggles from listeners and denizens of social media.
The radio commentator was referring to the recent deadly eruption of Mount Mayon that killed four foreign mountaineers and their local guide. The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) had termed it a “phreatic explosion,” which is said to happen when superheated volcanic rocks come in contact with water to produce steam that, if trapped, builds pressure over time until it is expelled by the volcano, sometimes violently, along with ash and rocks.
“It is a normal process in any volcano,” Phivolcs director Renato Solidum said. Like any other volcano in the country, Mayon “continuously moves steam,” he said. “But once that steam is trapped, there can be pressure and that can trigger a shallow explosion.”
Mayon’s recent blast was no laughing matter. Occurring without any sign or warning (“Typically, small phreatic events have no signs or precursors,” said Solidum), the explosion spat out boulders “as big as a living room” that rumbled down the slopes and presented a terrifying surprise to two groups of climbers, 27 in all, who were trying to scale the summit of the 2,460-meter (8,070-foot) volcano known worldwide for its picturesque near-perfect cone.
The five fatalities have been identified as Joanne Edosa, Roland Pietieze and Furian Stelter, all German nationals; Farah Frances, a Spanish national; and a local guide, Jerome Berin. Seven were reported injured.
Those with a taste for adventure may dismiss the incident as an occupational hazard; you climb one of the world’s most active volcanoes, you run the risk of injury or loss of life given its unpredictability.
The superstitious, meanwhile, may wish to chalk it up to the gods of the volcano claiming their ritual sacrifice. If true, Mayon’s mystic guardians have been a particularly voracious lot. It has erupted at least 48 times in the last 400 years, according to Phivolcs. Its deadliest explosion, in 1814, killed more than 1,200 people, buried several towns, and left only the belfry of Cagsawa Church protruding from the ground. In 1993, a similar phreatic explosion was also responsible for close to 80 fatalities, most of them farmers.
Could the deaths have been prevented this time around?
While it’s true that the eruption occurred without warning, no doubt shocking the climbers and leaving them no room to figure a way out (even those used to Mayon’s temper tantrums were jolted: “It was so sudden that many of us panicked; when we stepped out we saw this huge column against the blue sky,” said resident Jun Marana), it appears that there was some irregularity on the part of the travel agency that booked the mountaineers on their fatal hike up the summit.
Bicol Adventure and Travel Tours, the travel agency behind the climb of the 27 foreigners and their local guides, was in violation of rules and standard procedures, said Department of Tourism regional director Maria O. Ravanilla: “They got unaccredited guides, they failed to register with Albay’s provincial tourism office, they did not get a permit from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and they took the unofficial entry point. Not only should the DOT cancel their accreditation, I believe it’s reasonable for the LGUs to ultimately cancel their license.”
The British government had sensible advice for those seeking out Mayon. “You should follow the advice of the local authorities and respect the Mayon Volcano Permanent Danger Zone, which extends [six kilometers] outward from the volcano’s crater,” said the advisory from the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
It’s a warning that comes too late, much like the cautionary words now being repeated over and over by the local governments of Albay and Legazpi City for travelers to observe all mandated safety and security procedures in any Mayon climb. Any reckoning always happens after, and in this case, the government officials responsible for overseeing this crucial tourism activity must be asked why safety violations, these broad and these many, were allowed to happen.
Between foreign visitors seeking to enjoy the country’s attractions and local authorities tasked to impose ordinances to manage such activities, the onus is on the latter to ensure compliance with the ground rules at all times. In the face of a behemoth as volatile as Mayon, cutting corners is literally risking lives.