Tourists narrowly escape as Mount Etna spews molten rocks

Thousands of tourists visit the area on Sicily's east coast each year, but injuries are rare.

Salvatore Allegra/AP
Smoke billows from the Mt. Etna's volcano, near Catania, in Sicily, southern Italy, on Thursday, March 16, 2017. Volcanic rocks and steam injured at least 10 people, including tourists and a scientist, following an explosion on Sicily’s Mount Etna Thursday, witnesses and media reported.

Thirty-five tourists, their guides, and BBC film crew escaped serious injury after they were forced to turn and run down Sicily’s Mount Etna, pelted from above by potentially deadly, searing debris.

The group had come to witness one of the world’s most frequently erupting volcanoes, when a phreatic explosion, caused when lava hit thick snow, sent up a billow of steam followed by “boiling rocks and boulders” that began raining debris on the group as it retreated through “whiteout” conditions, according to BBC journalist Rebecca Morelle, whose camera woman kept it rolling throughout the ordeal.

The new lava flow, which began two days ago, likely topped 1,000 degrees Celsius, or 1,832 degrees F., in temperature.

The guides with the group helped escort the tourists to safety after the explosion began at around midday on Thursday, authorities said.

Some in the group had items of clothing burned all the way through by the falling debris, and four people were hospitalized but none of the injuries were reported “grave,” the Associated Press reported.

The president of the Italian Alpine Club chapter in Catania, Umberto Marino, was traveling up the volcano in a snowcat when injured people started running back toward him.

Standing at 11,000 feet, Etna is Europe’s largest volcano and erupts frequently and with little warning through any of its many vents. Residents, along with thousands of visitors each year, sometimes catch spectacular views of fountains of lava shooting into the night sky.

The earliest local records of Etna’s volcanic activity date back to 1500 B.C.

As a result of Thursday’s eruption, officials said flights arriving at Catania airport would be halved to five an hour because of ash clouds, but departures would continue uninterrupted.

Even though Etna is hyperactive, injuries to tourists visiting the volcano on the eastern coast of Sicily are rare. Authorities limited access to Etna’s more dangerous areas after nine tourists were killed there in 1979.

The group involved in Thursday’s incident were in a zone where people were permitted if accompanied by a guide.

Italy's volcanology institute is continuing to monitor the situation.

This report contains material from the Associated Press. 

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