Ships rescued thousands of villagers off beaches near the devastated port of Rabaul on Tuesday as two nearby volcanoes spewed thick ash, dense black smoke and poisonous fumes.
Most of the city's 30,000 residents and people from surrounding villages fled just before two volcanoes around Rabaul's once-picturesque harbor erupted Monday, triggering earthquakes.Witnesses said the city had been devastated by a 3-foot-deep layer of ash. Much of it had mixed with rainwater to form gray mud that collapsed many buildings and trees under its weight. Flooding was also reported.
Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan declared a state of emergency in the province of East New Britain, 500 miles northeast of the capital, Port Moresby.
Officials said communications with Rabaul had broken down and they feared for a small number of people still in the city.
"It is absolutely frightening and incredibly lonely," Michael Jansy, an Australian, told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
Volcanologists said two volcanoes, Tavurvur and Vulcan, produced huge clouds of ash and dust rising miles into the air.
"Vulcan is blowing its head off on the southern side and Tavurvur is the same on the northern side," Peter Sharp, a crew member of one ship that rescued about 2,500 villagers during the past two days, told the Australian Associated Press news agency by radio.
After its eruption, Vulcan produced three separate craters, all spewing out huge amounts of debris.
Reports of casualties and damage have not been confirmed due to poor communications, police said.
Witnesses said the surface of Rabaul harbor was covered in ash and floating volcanic pumice rock. There were reports of water boiling in some sections from hot vents on the harbor floor.