HK woman dies after fall into African volcano

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am

Tourist's adventure trip to Congo ends in tragedy

A Hong Kong woman who fell more than 200 metres into an active volcano in the African jungle was last night confirmed to have died, even as UN troops tried desperately to reach her.

The woman - named as Cecilia Cheng Siu-yan, 33 - had been stranded on a ledge inside Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2pm on Friday.

She had climbed the 3,500-metre volcano in the remote Virunga National Park accompanied by park guards and was taking photographs of the crater when she fell, a spokesman for the UN Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo said.

Kemal Saiki, media relations director for the UN mission, said members of a rescue team reached her at 12.20am (Hong Kong time) after a hazardous mission and confirmed she was dead.

A helicopter search team had reached the scene on Friday but could find no trace of her.

'The helicopter was rapidly despatched as soon as we heard about the incident and they searched the area, but they could not find her because of poor visibility and bad weather,' Mr Saiki said.

A mountain rescue team made up of 20 Indian Army troops, part of the country's UN peacekeeping force, and two volcanologists was scrambled at 6am and climbers began scaling down on ropes at 12.30pm.

Speaking from the volcano top, French volcanologist Jacques Durieux said: 'It was very difficult and quite dangerous because the walls are extremely unstable.'

Three climbers made the descent after fixing ropes to the walls of the crater.

Mr Saiki said: 'They managed to get the body halfway up the cliff face before they returned to the volcano rim at 5.50pm local time. Because of the conditions and the difficult terrain, and the fact that it was getting dark, they decided to suspend the retrieval operation.

'They believe that she died at the moment of the fall, although the body did not show serious injuries. They have left it on another ledge in the cliff and they will go back in the morning and pull it up. '

Mr Durieux said walking on the volcano was not normally dangerous. 'But we have heard from the local guards that she tried by herself, without knowledge and without equipment, to go down into the crater. They told her not to do so, but she didn't listen to them. That is a terrible mistake.'

The Chinese embassy in the capital, Kinshasa, confirmed the woman's name and age and that she was a Hong Kong SAR passport holder.

Embassy spokesman Yu Qiu-zhong said Ms Cheng obtained a visa in Rwanda, but it was not known when she had arrived in the Congo.

The volcano is one of the few tourist attractions in the country, which has been plagued by ethnic strife and a civil war that since 1994 has left more than 3 million dead.

Mr Saiki said Ms Cheng was believed to have left Hong Kong in 2004.

'She was apparently travelling alone. If you go into the park, you have to register for a visitor permit, which she did.'

A spokesman for the Immigration Department said they it contacted the victim's family in Hong Kong and would provide any help. 'Meanwhile, we are seeking more information from the Chinese embassy in the Democratic Republic of Congo.'