Echoes of Pompeii on stricken isle

These could be photographs of Pompeii; but they are not. They are images of Montserrat.

The tourist guides billed it as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean, named after its Irish connections and for its lush green hills. Unfortunately for the Montserrat capital of Plymouth, formerly a bustling seaside town of gaily-painted buildings, seafront bars and cheery people, it lay directly beneath a group of these hills which now house the deadly Soufriere volcano.

The little town is now a lunar-like landscape. Many of its buildings, including a never-opened state-of-the-art hospital, were crushed by house- sized boulders from the volcano. Others were burned to cinders by red hot ash and gas. All are now covered by a layer of light grey ash.

This is what the volcano's red hot ash, gas and rock - "pyroclastic flow" to the scientists - did to the little town in a series of eruptions earlier this month. This is why Montserratians are trying to impress on the British government that they have lost everything and need respectable compensation and a secure future.

After this month's eruptions, the ash layer in Plymouth made it too hot to set foot there. The city remained out of bounds because of the heat and the danger of a further 100mph pyroclastic flow which would swamp the town again in under one minute. As the ash cooled and the volcano rested, a photographer from the Reuters news agency ventured in this week to record the eerie scene.

It was in and around Plymouth that more than half the original 11,000 islanders lived. This is where most of their children went to school. This was their port, their only port, from which they exported their products and brought in the lucrative cruise liners. This was where everyone shopped, banked, went to hospital, went to church, dined, downed Carib beer or danced the night away in night clubs.

Plymouth had long been evacuated, initially after the first eruption in July 1995. It was twice re-occupied after the volcano danger seemed to wane but finally abandoned late last year as scientists warned that the volcano was angry. As a result, it had been thought that no one was killed in this devastation. Around 20 people in villages on other flanks of the volcanic hills died.

And even the residents of Plymouth who escaped with their lives were left with little else. In the wake of scientists' urgent warnings, most had fled with whatever they could carry, in suitcases or plastic bags tossed into cars. Some have gone on to Britain or nearby islands. Others are squeezed into relatives' homes, churches, schools or other shelters. So far, Britain has provided only five large tents. Fifty prefabricated houses are on their way but a project to build 250 further houses was recently frozen as Britain appeared to prefer the islanders to leave.

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