Volcano erupts on Caribbean island of St. Vincent, sending ash 20,000 feet into the air


(CNN) -- A volcano on the island of St. Vincent in the Caribbean erupted, authorities reported Friday, sending ash plumes 20,000 feet into the air.

La Soufrière volcano is located on the largest island of the St. Vincent and the Grenadines chain, the country's National Emergency Management Organization (NEMO) said.

"Explosive eruption at La Soufrière," NEMO tweeted. "Ash plumes up to 20,000 feet headed East," it added.

St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves on Thursday declared a disaster alert prompted by a change in the eruptive activity at the La Soufrière volcano, NEMO said.

The island was placed on red alert, meaning an eruption was "imminent now," NEMO said.

"Please leave the red zone immediately. La Soufrière has erupted. Ash fall recorded as far as Argyle International Airport," it said.

On Friday, Dora James, director general of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Red Cross, told CNN the eruption sounded like a "large jet engine," and that there was a "consistent flow of smoke" from the ash plume.

Boats and some vehicles picked up last-minute evacuees from the area shortly after the explosion, she said. James, too, evacuated from the area but is heading back to see if there is damage.

She said that phone lines are currently jammed in the area because so many people are calling to try to get news and check on anyone that may have stayed behind.

James lived through the April 1979 eruptions and remembers them well. She said that the 1979 eruptions had more fires and mushrooming of ash.

Kenton Chance, a freelance journalist, told CNN that he was about five miles away from the Le Soufrière volcano in the town of Rosehall on St. Vincent.

"Normally, you would have a very commanding view of the volcano," he said. "But because of the amount of ash in the air, you can't see it." Ash was still falling but in decreasing amounts, he said.

Chance heard rumbling from the mountain when he arrived, but it has since subsided.

Evacuation orders were put into place in about a dozen districts of St. Vincent, affecting roughly 6,000 to 7,000 people, a spokesperson for the University of the West Indies Seismic Research Centre, or UWI-SRC, told CNN.

While en route to Rosehall, Chance said he witnessed a number of people stopped on the side of the road, which he believes were evacuees.

He said so far he hasn't seen reports of property damage, injuries or deaths.

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