Volcano death toll grows as lava fills air with toxic gas

The volcanic eruption in eastern Congo two days ago has killed at least 32 people, officials say, as residents search for missing loved ones among destroyed homes on the outskirts of the eastern city of Goma where aftershocks were detected.

With little warning, Mount Nyiragongo turned the dark sky fiery red on Saturday night (local time) and then spewed torrents of lava into villages destroying more than 500 homes.

The toll on Monday increased from 22 to 32, and was likely to continue rising, Joseph Makundi, head of Civil Protection for the North Kivu province, said.

More than a dozen people died in car accidents while trying to escape, he said. Others were killed when lava hit their homes.

Lava from the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo cuts through Buhene, north of Goma. Source: AP/Justin Kabumba
The volcanic eruption in eastern Congo two days ago has killed at least 32 people, with hundreds more still missing. Source: AP/Justin Kabumba

Toxic gas kills people travelling between Kibati and Goma

Some died on Monday from inhaling smoke or toxic gas when they were walking across a wide expanse of the cooling lava, the scientific director of the Volcanic Observatory of Goma, Celestin Kasereka Mahinda, told the Associated Press.

They were travelling on the road between Kibati and Goma that was cut off by a flow of lava 1000 metres wide, he said, urging Goma residents to avoid unnecessary travel.

Grief, disbelief and fear hung over the area as a delegation of government ministers, including Congo's health minister, visited Goma after flying in from neighbouring Rwanda.

Scientists at the volcano observatory were not able to adequately warn the public of the eruption because of a funding cut, Mr Mahinda said.

Congolese residents of Goma flee from Mount Nyiragongo volcano as it erupts over Goma. Source: EPA/Hugh Kinsella Cunningham
Thousands of Goma residents carrying mattresses and other belongings fled the city on foot after the volcano. Source: EPA/Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

"The observatory no longer has the support of the central government or of external donors, which explains why the volcanic eruption was such a surprise," Mr Mahinda said.

A partnership between the government and the World Bank that had supported the observatory was cut in October 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving the observatory without even internet, he said.

The observatory had just started to resume operations last month thanks to new funding from the US Geological Survey's Volcano Disaster Assistance Program, which meant the observatory could at least gather data after the eruption, he said.

The volcano remained active and earthquake tremors were being recorded, he said.

Thousands flee Goma as tremors continue

The government ministers visiting Goma on Monday were assessing what aid is needed for those hurt by the eruption.

Goma's international airport and the airport in Kavumu in South Kivu province were closed for security reasons, he said in a statement.

Mount Nyiragongo erupting, near Goma in Congo. Source: Raphael Kaliwavyo Raks-Brun via AP
The volcano in Congo remained active and earthquake tremors were being recorded, he said. Source: Raphael Kaliwavyo Raks-Brun via AP

The volcano eruption caused about 5000 people to flee from one neighbourhood of Goma, a city of about two million people, across the nearby border into Rwanda.

Another 25,000 others sought refuge to the northwest in Sake, the UN children's agency said.

More than 170 children were still feared missing, and UNICEF officials said they were organising transit centres to help unaccompanied children as more than 150 children were reportedly separated from their families.

Goma ultimately was largely spared the mass destruction caused by Mount Nyiragongo's last eruption in 2002. Hundreds died then and more than 100,000 people were left homeless.

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