Lava, ashes, thunder and lightning came out of the Taal volcano in the Philippines on Monday. as thousands of residents fled the region along car-choked roads and ominous darkness.
The Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology warned that a "dangerous explosive eruption" was possible within hours to days.
President Rodrigo Duterte ordered families from nearby communities to evacuate to safer areas, a process hampered by poor visibility and, for many, lack of transportation. Hundreds of thousands of people can finally flee the region, officials said.
"The Taal volcano has entered a period of intense turmoil," the institute said in a statement. "This magmatic eruption is characterized by faint lava sources accompanied by thunder and lightning."
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana warned that the "worst case scenario" for Taal would be the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo, 140 kilometers north, which killed 800 people and left 200,000 homeless.
"Remember Pinatubo – the whole mountain collapsed during the eruption," Lorenzano said. "This is what we fear, that the eruption will cause the entire island to rise and scatter debris in nearby areas."
Taal began acting on Sunday, spewing ashes, steam, and even smaller rocks nearly 10 miles high. The wreckage forced Manila Airport, 105 kilometers away, to close for several hours. More than 500 flights were canceled and officials warned that the airport could be closed again if conditions worsened.
"We can never predict the actions of this volcano," said Lorenzana.
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Tracy Gregg, associate professor of geology at Buffalo University, agreed with the Philippine government's assessment. She said nearby Lake Taal is actually a volcanic crater formed by at least four "cataclysmic" eruptions over 500,000 years ago.
Taal Island, essentially the volcano, was formed from subsequent minor eruptions.
"The truth is, we don't have a good precedent for how such a large volcano turns into a cataclysmic eruption," Gregg told USA TODAY. "We know these eruptions occur … but we don't know what specific advancement signs such a gigantic eruption would give us, because we never saw one."
She said it could be what Taal is speeding up. But she said she may also be simply exuding extra pressure – "as if a pan boiled on the stove."
Taal is between two dozen active volcanoes in the Philippines. The country is part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, a seismically active region prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
At least 30,000 people have left their homes in Batangas and Cavite province by Monday, the country's disaster response team said. More than 15,000 people fled to emergency shelters on Monday, the Filipino News Service reported.
Irene de Claro, mother of four, worried about her father, who stayed in his village in the town of Agoncillo, Batangas, while the rest of the family fled in panic.
“My father is missing. We also don't know what happened to our house because the ashes were on our knees, "she said." It was very dark and the ground shook constantly as we left.
"There's probably nothing to return to. We're back to zero."
In the city of Balete, Mayor Wilson Maralit said some panicked residents were more interested in saving livestock than in saving themselves.
"We are trying to prevent them from returning," he told DZMM radio. "Announcement warning that the volcano could explode again at any time and hit them."
Contribution: Associated Press