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Cameroon the Lake of Death

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The only warning was a nocturnal rumble that resembled distant thunder. Then a silent plume of colorless gas shot up from the turbulent depths of Lake Nios, just inside Cameroon's northwest border. Within minutes, the heavy fumes of carbon dioxide burst over the rim and sank into the valley below, enveloping sleepy hamlets in a deadly bubble. Villagers who had already bedded down for the night quietly suffocated in their sleep.

Others tried to outrun the deadly cloud, overturning tables, chairs and cooking pots as they fled their mudbrick huts. Some desperately stripped off their dresses and shirts to escape the burning caused by the gas. Later they were found only yards from their crumpled clothes, overcome by asphyxiation. "I saw people dying, people dead all around," recalled Ephrem Ngong Kum, 24, of Su-Bum, a village some 200 miles northwest of Yaounde, Cameroon's capital. "They died in the houses, in streets, outside the forest, in the stream." Fellow Villager Chia David Wambong remembered a warm feeling, as if he were drunk. "Everyone started to cough, and some people vomited blood," he said. "I saw people on the ground screaming. Everyone was crying." When the cloud lifted, there were few survivors to mourn the dead.

It will never be known how many died in probably the worst natural calamity ever to strike the quiet west African country. The U.N. Disaster Relief coordinator in Geneva put the toll at 1,746, but the number may be far higher. National army units, fearing an epidemic, quickly buried the decomposing bodies, never pausing to keep count. More corpses were hastily buried by kin from neighboring villages. "There are mass graves because we only had a few laborers, and we could not dig individual graves," Lieut. General James Tataw, commander of the rescue operation, told reporters. "Those who have individual graves, those were dug for them by their relatives. The cows have no relatives, so their burial will be last."

By week's end the Cameroon army had laid to rest most of the populations of the three hardest-hit villages: Nios, Su-Bum and Cha. At least 300 people, many of them farmers from the surrounding hills, clogged the area's few hospitals, sharing beds with other victims while they awaited treatment for shock and burns. Perhaps another 3,000 refugees, displaced from their homes on the fringes of the affected 10-sq.-mi. area, were evacuated by army troops. All told, it was estimated that 20,000 lives were upended by the freakish disaster that was aptly, if ineloquently described by M. Peter McPherson, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, as a "Ripley's Believe It or Not event."

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