Cameroon Toll Above 1,500

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 27, 1986

YAOUNDE, Cameroon, Aug. 26, 1986 -- The bodies of more than 1,500 Cameroonians were being buried today in unmarked mass graves in the remote northwestern part of this country, where they died when a cloud of toxic gas swept through their villages Thursday night.

The lethal gas, which erupted from the bottom of a volcanic lake, seems to have dissipated, according to reporters who were flown by helicopter by the government today to the site of the disaster around Lake Nios, about 250 miles north of this capital.

By afternoon, nearly all of the dead -- who had lived in the three most affected villages on the north side of the lake -- had been buried. Army troops carrying out the operation worked with kerchiefs tied over their faces to ward off the stench of hundreds of putrefying cows and other animals that were spread across the lush equatorial hillsides.

The office of the U.N. Disaster Relief Coordinator in Geneva put the toll at 1,534, based on reports from here.

Lt. Gen. James Tataw, head of the Army disaster team, told reporters that most of the victims had died in or near their tin-roofed houses. A few survivors spoke of being awakened by the choking sensation the gas produced. About 300 people were admitted to two rural hospitals in the vicinity, although many have now been released.

Some victims spoke of coughing blood, and doctors said they feared the survivors may suffer longer-term illnesses, including pneumonia, from damaged lungs.

Some of the dead were found with blood around their noses and mouths.

Reporters in the area described it as looking like the aftermath of a neutron bomb, with damage only to living things, and no visible effect on the village huts and other buildings. A few chickens seemed to be the only animals to have survived in the three hardest-hit villages.

"It's funny, you know, the goats, the pigs, the cows and the men, they all died," Tataw said.

Many of the houses and villages had freshly turned piles of earth in front of them, made by the military equipment that dug crude graves and covered them.

In Nios village, closest to the lake, all of the estimated 1,000 population but two -- a woman and her child -- were believed to have died. One regional official, Ngwang Gumne, said that the final human toll may reach 2,000 dead. He said provisional figures had been arrived at by estimating the population of the affected villages and subtracting the number of known survivors.

No foreign disaster team has yet reached the lakeside area.

An Israeli medical team, which arrived here yesterday with Prime Minister Shimon Peres, was waiting this morning in the provincial capital of Bamenda, about 40 miles from the lake. Although the team plans to set a field hospital closer to the site, officials acknowledged that the fatality rate was so high that there was little they could do beyond treating a relatively small number of injured survivors.

Six American specialists -- three pathologists and three vulcanologists -- are due to arrive in Cameroon Wednesday and Thursday. The vulcanologists will try to determine the components of the lethal gas, believed by officials here to have been a combination of toxic fumes.

In 1984, a similar eruption in a nearby crater lake killed 37 persons. At that time, pathologists were unable to determine the exact cause of death because the bodies were buried quickly. The U.S. team hopes to have more luck in examining the victims this time. While recognizing that weather conditions and the area's inaccessibility necessitate quick burial if disease is to be avoided, plans are to try to preserve some of the bodies by freezing until they can undergo forensic examination.

Relief has been slow to arrive in the area for several reasons. The villages of Nios, Cha and Subum, all without electricity or running water, lie 30 to 40 miles from any paved road, and heavy rains have washed out dirt tracks. At the same time, the stunned Cameroonian government has not completed an assessment of its needs or made official requests for aid from the numerous foreign governments that have offered it.

The U.S. ambassador here, Myles Freschette, has made an initial $25,000 immediately available from embassy emergency funds. U.S. diplomats hope to gain government approval Wednesday to use the money for food supplies to be trucked to the area.

The British Embassy is believed to be organizing shipments of fresh milk and uncontaminated water, and other Western European governments have offered to assist in bringing local resources to the area pending the arrival of more substantial international aid.

The remoteness of the area prevented the outside world -- and even nearby towns and villages that were untouched by the gas cloud -- from hearing about the disaster until as much as two days after it had happened. Few people from the affected valley and hillsides near the north part of the lake survived.

Gen. Tataw spoke to reporters outside one hut in which he said eight family members had died. "They are being buried near the houses because we have no transport," he said, "and the state of the bodies makes them difficult to touch."

The toxic gas cloud produced by the eruption, which originally was reported, erroneously, to have occurred on Friday, appeared to have covered an area of about 10 square miles -- starting from the north edge of the lake, which is a mile long and half a mile wide. Reporters flying over the lake, normally a brilliant blue color, described it as looking like a muddy, rust-colored marsh that had sunk in the volcanic crater.

Several survivors said that the smell of the cloud was like "kitchen gas" from a stove. One man said he had run outside after he began to gasp and then took refuge in an unventilated cooking room in the back of his house.

Survivors described victims walking around as if they were intoxicated before beginning to cough and scream. Many began to rip off their clothing, apparently because of the body heat caused by the gas.

At least two Cameroonian C130 military transport aircraft arrived today in Bamenda, carrying 16 tons of canned rations. The planes were unloaded by schoolchildren who lined up fire-brigade-style. The aircraft also brought 5-gallon containers of lime to pour over the dead animals.

© 1986 The Washington Post Company