It’s a ghostly scene at the entrance and headquarters to Cotopaxi National Park.
Behind the yellow “keep out” tape that warns of imminent danger, in the haze of falling ash, a small crew of workers continues to protect and maintain park facilities. They sweep ash from rooftops and the solar panels used to power lights. They maintain patrols around the gift shop and tourist information center, making sure doors and windows are secure, and dust off vehicles parked outside.
They wear masks and goggles to protect them from the ash but they cannot escape the sometimes overpowering odor of sulfur gas.
Until a month ago, most of the workers were assisting tourists, answering questions, providing directions to other park facilities. Today, they all understand that their presence at park headquarters puts them in danger. They are less than five kilometers from the volcano and can feel the ground shake under their feet from the ongoing series of tremors.
“We all understand that we might not survive if an eruption begins,” says Sonia Enrique. “We have agreed to be here because the work has to be done to protect the park,” she said.
Another employee said he had written a will over the weekend in the case he doesn’t make it out alive.
The group gathers frequently in the park welcome center, to drink coffee and tea, and to share their thoughts. According to Enrique, there is a lot of joking of the black humor type. “We have some fun but it is nervous fun,” she says.
Most of the crew sleeps at headquarters, where two shifts of employees work around the clock. They have all practiced evacuation routines and have been told that they should be able to survive an eruption as long as it is not too intense. The major danger, they say, is if a nearby bridge is destroyed by pyroclastic flows or lahars, blocking their escape route. “It’s something we live with,” says Enrique.
According to the latest report from the Geophysical Institute early Wednesday morning, Cotopaxi remains in a state of high internal activity with ash and gas clouds continuing to drift west from the crater. The amount of gas and ash emitted has subsided slightly from earlier levels, the report says.