Sunday, March 2, 1997

When the Piparo bubble burst


JUST before dawn last Saturday, villagers were disturbed by "a rumbling and a tumbling in the atmosphere" around Piparo.

Curiosity swiftly gave way to alarm and horror as they saw the heretofore harmless hole in the earth suddenly vomit mountains of mud.

The mud volcano, which erupted and laid waste its natural and man-made surroundings, was as mysterious a phenomenon as any that has distracted Trinidad and Tobago in recent weeks.

After the mud had settled, Anthony Milne donned boots and went to inspect the volcano and what was left of the village. His report:

Standing at the top of Piparo's mud volcano you get a clear view of the rolling green countryside around than you did just weeks ago.

The low hill on which the village sits has grown by 15 or 20 feet since the volcano erupted on Saturday, February 22, at five in the morning. Tons of clayey mud have settled to cover about half an acre in the centre of the village. Buried beneath it are the remains of several houses, nearly a dozen vehicles, and 100 yards or more of Piparo Road which passed through the village.
How no one was killed in the eruption is a mystery.

Shastri Sankar, 36, who works with the state-owned sugar company Caroni (1975) Ltd, lives a few hundred yards from the volcano and was awakened by the sound of the eruption.

"I heard this rumbling noise and woke up thinking it was a helicopter landing from the sky," he said. He looked outside and saw nothing, so he got up and went out. Dawn was coming but it was still dark.

Sanakr's father, who lives across the road, called out to him. "That sound like the volcano giving trouble," said his father, who has lived in Piparo for many years. Older heads in the village seem to have known right away what was happening.

"I called out to my neighbour and woke him up and told him to ring his daughter to see if everything was all right," Sankar said. "When we called the phone was already dead."
Sankar got into his car and drove along Piparo Road towards the centre of the village, his headlights on. He stopped and got out. "I saw everybody running out and houses being mashed up and buried."

Dhanraj ("Boya") Ragbir, 61, a small farmer, has lived in Piparo all his life. He was asleep upstairs with wife in his two-storey house 50 yards from the central vent of the volcano. His son and a little child were asleep in a room downstairs.

"I get up to hear a real hard noise," Ragbir said. "Shhhhh - like an
air hose burst." The house was shaking and the lights went out. "I tell everybody get up fast and the noise started getting bigger," he recalled. "I opened a door and we run out. The door wouldn't close back. About seven minutes afterwards the whole thing come down in a rush and we had to run for survival. It was real terrible."

The advancing wall of mud smashed into Ragbir's house twisting it out of shape. Thick tongues of mud entered the lower rooms and congealed there. On one side the mud is almost as high as the roof.

Ragbir said vehicles were bogged down in the mud and had to be pulled out. He was full of praise for the selfless man who died of a heart attack after the eruption.
"He lived at Stone Road," he said. "He wasn't affected but he came here and he worked hard to help all of us."

Five days after the eruption the affable Ragbir, who has gone to stay with a son at Stone Road, a quarter of a mile away, was standing outside what was left of his home welcoming visitors. Many were from Tabaquite to the north-east (where another mud volcano erupted in 1930), some from further afield. They were able to walk up some concrete steps to one side of the house and step onto the roof to get a better view. A couple of the more intrepid set off across the wide expanse of mud to the bubbling top of the volcano.

José de Castro, who works with a well-servicing company, lives on the other side of the village, near the cemetery, with his wife and two children.

"I woke up when I heard what sounded like a plane crash," he said. "The first eruption was at about 4 a.m. before the bigger one. I drove up the road to investigate and saw mud coming, but it wasn't major yet."

He packed his family in his car immediately and set off for San
Fernando where his mother lives. Later he went back to Piparo to see what had happened. His house wasn't damaged but he was worried about the lack of security and thieves.

De Castro said soldiers encamped on Dole Chadee's land left the day after the eruption. He and others living in the area have been advised to move out, he said, but there is no one to watch what they have left behind.

"People leaving the area have been taking their belongings and even removing their windows and doors to take with them to make sure they aren't stolen," he said. "One guy even took his roof. There are a lot of predators around who need money to buy drugs."

Ragbir too was worried about thieves. He said somebody had tried to steal a neighbour's Dobermann after the eruption but was caught. "What I could do about it?" he asked. "I can't stay here in jeopardy."

To get to the centre of the mud volcano you have to pick your way across the expanse of mud, trying to stick to the drying patches. Near the volcano's two vents, someone has planted two long sticks which you can see from a distance and aim for. One false step and you sink a foot deep, and get out again only with great effort. Here and there you can step on pieces of board and galvanise which have been laid on the mud.

A black cable an inch thick crosses the mud. This is the telephone
line. A mobile phone booth with three phones has been brought to the village by the telephone company TSTT.

At last you come to the vents, holes in the mud where gas bubbles up through small pools of water with the sound of a boiling cauldron.

Thin streaks of oil float on the water. Put your hand into the hole and the water is cool. The mud in the hole is grey and feels like wet, sticky plasticine, with the occasional black stone in it. The gas has no odour but the mud has a faint petroleum smell, like kerosine.

The wind whips across the mud drying slowly in the sun. Stand up and you can see to the north-west the highest hills of the Central Range above Gran Couva. To the north is a hill with a big, square tank on it, Dole Chadee's house and land below. Far away to the south are Tableland, Princes Town - and Devil's Woodyard, site of Trinidad's most famous mud volcanoes.

Few people outside Piparo remembered there was a mud volcano there before the eruption. For years it was just a couple of little watery mud holes in the bushes next to the Piparo Road where it passed through the village.

"It wasn't bubbling hard as it is now," Sankar said. "It just went
blup, blup. Everybody in the village used to go there and collect
mud". They used it to leepay floors and walls and mud ovens,
plastering it on them to seal them and give a fine finish.

Early in February this year, just before Carnival, the volcano began to act up. It began to bubble more fiercely. De Castro said people in the area got two sets of advice from technical people who visited. One set said it was nothing to worry about, the other that it could be dangerous. Now villagers don't know what to believe.

Ragbir agreed that the volcano had "given a warning" before Carnival.
Days after the eruption he felt it looked as though it was "easing
up", but he couldn't be sure.

He remembered that more than 20 years ago, in 1973, the volcano "gave a little eruption". It threw up a cone about three feet high and five feet in diameter and the road cracked and sank. "It remained cool after that," he said. "This is the worst we have got and I wouldn't like to see it happen again."
At the start of Piparo Road a sign on an orange board says "Road Closed". At the other end, in the village, is a police barrier, ten yards before the roads end in a wall of mud.

Another orange sign points out Hoseine Trace which goes to the
village. Heavy vehicles were at work there after the eruption,
widening the road.

Just before Hoseine Trace, Mozart Abdool has a parlour and car-parts shop. He wonders if business will pick up as the clean-up continues and more visitors arrive.

There are plans to transfer the residents to another village. Most don't really want to move permanently, but what will the volcano will do next? Meanwhile they have been staying with relatives or friends in the vicinity while they watch and wait.

Anatomy of a Mud Volcano  Interesting article from Internet Express,Trinidad,WI.
The Eruption I  Mud volcano engulfs Piparo, Feb.23rd, 1997
The Eruption II  When the Piparo bubble burst, March 2nd.1997
Still threatening  News of February 24th.1997
Once again, 2011  December 2011
Trinidad Express  Thanks to The Trinidad Internet Express
Info from NODAK,Alaska  From people who know what it is..

Return to special volcano page.