Blacker than black: The paradise that became purgatory

Phil Davison reports from Montserrat that Plymouth will be uninhabitabl e for generations

Old Towne, Montserrat -The rolling rumble of the thunderstorm shook me from my bed at 4.02am as orange lightning flashes flickered across my room. Except that it was not a thunderstorm. It was Montserrat's Soufriere volcano erupting, creating its own lightning, and it was an awesome experience, even a couple of miles from the bubbling crater.

First came the grey smoke, then the black, rising in a mushroom cloud like a dark atomic bomb until it completely shut out the earlier tapestry of shimmering stars. The entire island fell blacker than black, split only by continuing bolts of orange.

On a post-dawn helicopter reconnaissance yesterday, the damage was obvious. Most of the island's 350-year-old capital, Plymouth, is under a charcoal- grey mass of ash or sludge, its seafront unrecognisable, its key bridges and single-storey buildings buried, others still smouldering after catching fire from red-hot gas, ash or searing pumice pebbles. Yesterday, you could see only the top half of the once-bustling two-storey supermarket.

Long evacuated, Plymouth had been an unpopulated ghost town. Now, the town itself is dead.

"I would say without doubt that Plymouth will not be habitable for generations now," said Montserrat police commissioner Frank Hooper, a chief superintendent on secondment from Sussex police, after the stomach-churning trip in a tiny glass-fronted helicopter.

"In broad terms, the centre of Plymouth is generally destroyed. To rebuild it, we'd have to start from scratch. The cost would be horrendous," Mr Hooper said.

"The town's two bridges are completely destroyed. The beach is under 20ft of ash. The flow has reached a height of 50ft at some points. The problem now is we're in the hurricane season, when we can get 10 inches of rain in 12 hours. If we get a major storm, we can expect major mudflows."

Since it is too dangerous to send in firemen, the authorities are forced to watch the town burn. Yesterday, the latest casualty, seen smouldering from the helicopter, was the technical college on the road between here and Plymouth.

What the scientists call the pyroclastic flow - an avalanche of 700C ash, gas and rock careering down the volcano's slopes at 100mph, following what locals call ghauts ghauts, or dry river beds - has been surging from the crater roughly every 12 hours since Sunday. Yesterday, it widened to endanger the evacuated village of Molineaux in the Belham River valley and the entire "central buffer zone" between the total "exclusion zone" of the south and the relatively safe north.

The buffer zone was finally evacuated on Monday night, including the landmark Vue Pointe hotel in Old Towne and the sea-level area around the Montserrat golf course, which has been showered with ash and now looks like falling into disrepair since no one can reach it.

"It is important you don't go sightseeing. There's no way anyone can reach you if you get stuck," said the lilting Caribbean voice of announcer Rose Willock on Radio Montserrat yesterday. "There will be time enough for all of you to go sightseeing in the next 20 years."

Most Montserratians, in their homes, in the Salem church refugee centre, in the reggae-blasting wooden shacks where rastafarian youths guzzle beer or rum and play snooker, stay tuned to the station for its emergency broadcasts.

Among those overflying the volcano yesterday was Jill Norton, a scientist from the British Geological Survey in Nottingham, who is currently deputy chief of the Montserrat Volcano Observatory, one of five Britons in a 20-member team. "Today was not quite as bad as Tuesday evening. The cloud reached 20,000ft. We routinely contact the aviation authorities when that happens, to warn off airliners," she said.

"It's an awesome sight, to see a mushroom cloud in the classical umbrella shape or an avalanche of hot gas and ash at night when it reaches 800C and you can see it glow."

Despite the stress of living under the volcano, those Montserratians still here are coping well, managing to maintain their laid-back Caribbean life-style despite the hardships. Some even took the little ferry to Antigua for the island's carnival on Tuesday, braving a heaving Atlantic swell that often seemed to threaten to swallow up the boat.

Instead of rebuilding in the volcano's shadow, the British and local governments are studying the possibility of a new capital in the rugged northern part of the island, so far relatively unscathed, where hundreds of refugees are living in churches or corrugated-iron huts often without water of flushing toilets.

It was from that zone, at a makeshift jetty known as Little Bay, that refugees continued to flee on a small ferryboat to the island of Antigua. Probably fewer than half the island's 11,000 residents are still here but most who have fled say they would come back if the north was developed.

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