PHILIPPINE villagers evacuate as workers prepare to crack Mount Pinatubo crater to drain volcanic lake

Wednesday, September 5th 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

BOTOLAN, Philippines (AP) _ Thousands of people evacuated villages near Mount Pinatubo on Wednesday as workers prepared to breach the volcano's crater to drain its brimming lake.

Dozens of trucks and buses took residents of Botolan, a city about 25 miles from the volcano, to evacuation centers far from Pinatubo, where workers planned to crack the crater Thursday.

The crater lake rose to dangerous levels during the rainy season, which runs from May to October. Unless some water is drained, it could shatter the upper walls of the 4,740-foot volcano, geologists said.

In recent weeks, workers dug a 17-foot notch in the edge of Pinatubo's crater. On Thursday, workers plan to use pressurized water to blast away the remaining bit of earth, clearing the way for about 25 percent of the lake to drain.

The operation could unleash a deluge of mud and water. Worried residents trailed out of Botolan in loaded vans, cars, tractors and carts pulled by water buffalo. Officials have said as many as 40,000 people must evacuate.

Farmer Nestor Dial, 43, loaded a buffalo-drawn cart with four goats and piles of taro root, and tied his horse to the back.

``I'm bringing all of my farm animals out of here because they could be destroyed,'' he said.

Raymundo Punongbayan, director of the Philippine Institute for Volcanology and Seismology, cited a ''20 percent chance of the worst-case scenario'' in which a violent surge of water would be unleashed, collecting mud and burying villages as it flooded down the volcanic mountain.

Such a slide could inundate Botolan within an hour and a half, he said.

Ideally, he said, the breaching will slowly release water from the volcano and follow the path of the Bucao River, posing no threat to nearby villages.

Despite flood threats, some residents vowed to stay behind to guard their homes and businesses.

``I cannot leave,'' said Arcie Dantik, 31, who works on a fish pond near the Bucao River and the water's likely path. ``What if looters strike? I don't think the water will really inundate this place. If it will, well, there are many trees around.''

Others said they would climb onto their roofs in case of flooding.

Military ground commander Col. John Bolhayon said two helicopters are ready to rescue villagers who refuse to leave and are stranded by rising water.

Pinatubo, about 50 miles north of Manila, erupted in 1991, killing 800 people and spewing billions of tons of debris. The eruption blew off Pinatubo's top, leaving a hole with an area of about two square miles at its summit. The opening has acted as a collecting pot for rainwater.

In June 1998, a similar crater lake collapsed in Nicaragua's Casita volcano under pressure from Hurricane Mitch. More than 2,000 people were killed.

Pinatubo is one of the Philippines' 22 active volcanos.

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