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Etna’s flow threatens shops

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ON MOUNT ETNA, Sicily — With Mount Etna belching plumes of flame and ash, workers relentlessly bulldozed dirt and volcanic rock into 10-foot walls Friday, hoping to prevent lava from swallowing a string of souvenir shops and a cable-car base.

The work became more frantic after the flow from Europe's most active volcano burned a wooden warehouse Friday morning, just hours after it poured over a protective embankment and across a parking lot that had been cleared of cars.

Officials said the lava was slowing down but that it still threatened Rifugio Sapienza, a collection of souvenir stands, a restaurant and a ski lift base more than halfway up the volcano.

"We live here with our families, and we're worried, of course," said Alfio Carone, one of the owners of La Cantoniera restaurant, which stood 200 feet from the lava Friday afternoon.

Carone was still serving food Friday — but only to journalists and emergency workers as the main road to the restaurant is closed to tourists. He said he hasn't been told when he should leave but that it might be soon.

"Lava is getting closer every day," he said.

Late Friday, two new fractures opened elsewhere on Etna's side, but officials said they weren't threatening any structures and in fact might help ease the pressure propelling the two main lava fronts toward the Sapienza base and a town further down the volcano.

About 20 bulldozers and scores of workers, their faces blackened by ash, relentlessly pushed earth and debris to create barriers to save the Sapienza base, which sits at an altitude of 6,266 feet.

Fearing the walls might not do the trick, officials dismantled the wooden jungle-gym of a playground and owners closed their souvenir stands, clearing out their stocks of postcards, lava Madonnas and other carved pieces of volcanic rock.

One man put a Madonna statue before the entrance of his store before leaving it. And the archbishop of Catania said he would hold a special prayer Sunday to ask that the eruption stop.

"It is a terrible moment for those of us who are up here. Certainly even our grandfathers can't even remember it being like this," said Giovanni Serafina, owner of a bar 100 yards from the lava.

About 10 army bulldozers were sent up the mountain Thursday to help exhausted crews of workers using backhoes to build earthworks around Rifugio Sapienza and the nearby base of the ski lift. Hours earlier, the stream of lava had destroyed three central pylons of Mount Etna's ski lift.

On Friday, workers were trying to reinforce an embankment in front of the cable-car base.

Etna, which towers 10,860 feet above Sicily, comes to life every few months. The last major eruption was in 1992.

It has been gushing lava from fractures on its southern slope for more than a week. Thunderous booms have accompanied the spurts of lava and blue-gray ash, which have reached hundreds of feet high.

The only town threatened is Nicolosi, home to 6,000 people, but the lava appeared to have eased the pressure in that direction, said Sonia Calvari, an official with the National Institute of Geophysics and Vulcanology.

Although none of the towns on Etna's slopes have been damaged, there have been losses in agriculture and tourism.

On the Net: www.videobank.it/etna2001/; www.lasiciliaweb.com/