Montserrat volcano set to explode

PLYMOUTH, Montserrat (AP) A dog howled lonesomely outside a locked door as the last residents of the island's capital fled yesterday, fearing that a long-dormant volcano near the edge of town was about to explode.

The Soufriere Hills Volcano, four miles east of Plymouth, has been rumbling and causing worries since July 18. But a series of strong eruptions that began Monday prompted authorities to order the evacuation of the southern half of this British Caribbean colony.

At Bramble Airport, dozens of people clutching children and baggage crowded to get on planes bound for the neighboring island nation of Antigua.

Plymouth, home to some 3,000 people, is now a city of empty streets and shuttered windows, in perpetual gloom because of a huge cloud of ash spewed by the volcano.

Green-bereted British Marines manned roadblocks to keep people from returning to the evacuated half of the island, which is just 11 miles long and no more than 7 miles wide.

Before dawn, scientists among a team of seismologists and volcanologists who have come to the island alerted Gov. Frank Savage that there was a 70 percent to 80 percent chance that the volcano would explode.

While eruptions pose dangers with their ash clouds and lava flows, explosions can be catastrophic with devastating concussion waves and clouds of toxic, scalding gases.

On Tuesday, eruptions opened a vent on the western side of the mountain, exposing that side of the island to lava danger for the first time.

Two British Marines were on a narrow ledge of the mountain when the new vent blew.

''They said, 'It's exploding! It's going crazy!' It's like being under extremely heavy mortar fire,'' said a military source.

The marines were sent to film the volcano by scientists frustrated because heavy clouds obscured the danger zone they have been monitoring from a Royal Navy helicopter.

The chopper is from the HMS Southhampton, a British warship cruising offshore with 250 men aboard to help if the island has to be evacuated.

Since Monday, government offices and the country's telecommunications center have been moved from Plymouth to St. John's, a town in the northern part of Montserrat, an island of 12,000 people. The hospital was relocated to a primary school in the northern village of Gerald's Bottom.

The volcano's crater is about 500 feet deep, open on one side and containing a lava dome that rises about as high as the rim. Scientists were closely watching the dome for signs of expansion, which would indicate molten lava at the heart of the volcano is building up pressure and about to blow.

So far, the volcano's vents have spewed only ash, steam and gases. Sources close to the scientists say the volcano is not following an expected pattern, which is puzzling and disturbing.

Previously, the scientists, including experts from the Caribbean Seismic Research Center in Trinidad, the French Observatoire Volcanologique in Guadeloupe and the U.S. Geological Survey, had been confident they could give 24 to 36 hours' warning of a life-threatening eruption.

Eugene Skerritt was not ready to gamble.

''We've hung around as long as we could, but, when you have kids, you have to think of safety,'' Skerritt said at Bramble Airport, waiting to leave with his wife, Claudia, and their two sons, 8 and 11.

On the winding road from the airport, a farmer tried to drag a stubborn lamb to a shed.

''Let (it) loose, let loose, mon,'' shouted the driver of a passing car.

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