Home » Episodes » Episode 77 – Van Nuys, CA & Cameroon, Africa (Sherri Rasmussen & Lake Nyos)

First, Rachel takes us to Van Nuys, California to share the story of Sherri Rasmussen’s murder. Then Emily takes us to Cameroon, Africa to talk about the Lake Nyos disaster that killed over 1,700 people.

Story 1 – Sherri Rasmussen

Today I’m going to tell you a tale as old as time – it involves a decades-long who-done-it, a bad bitch, a hero dad, a jealous ex, and a fuck boi. The murder of Sherri Rasmussen.

But I’m going to keep it on brand and start with the fuck boi. His name was John Ruetten. He was handsome, talkative, and charming, with thick dark hair. Very quintessential 1980s. In 1984, John was having what he thought was a casual relationship with Stephanie Lazarus. They were just sleeping together, according to him. But John Ruetten broke our number one rule – he put his dick in the crazy.

In the summer of 1984, John met Sherri Rasmussen. From the research I did, it seemed like it was love at first sight for both of them. Sherri was beautiful, but she was also incredibly driven and intelligent. John was 25 and had recently graduated from UCLA, and Sherri was 27 and already the director of nursing at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. They were both athletic and had a lot in common – but more than that – Sherri stirred something up in John. She was so kind and confident – she traveled internationally to give lectures on critical-care nursing. She made him want to be better.

John Ruetten & Sherri Rasmussen

So, John said “bye-bye” to his days of fuck-boi-ing, and hello to a life with Sherri Rasmussen, which included ending things with Stephanie. Stephanie was heartbroken. You see, she didn’t think their relationship was casual at all. She contacted him multiple times after he ended things and even wrote his mother a letter declaring her love for John. 

Now, it’s easy to pin this all on Stephanie, and in no way am I saying she is innocent, as you’ll find out later in this story. However, as your friendly neighborhood therapist, I’d just like to take a moment to remind everyone that clear boundaries are important. If someone is contacting you and you’d like them to stop, you need to be clear, and PS, no backsliding. John and Stephanie slept together while John and Sherri were dating. In my opinion, he was encouraging this behavior, and maybe was even flattered by the attention.

Regardless, John wanted to be with Sherri. The pair got married in November of 1985, and began to settle into a life together. John got a job with an engineering company, and Sherri continued to kill it professionally in nursing. They lived in a gated community in Van Nuys, and things seemed to be ideal.

However, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Sherri had a weird feeling about Stephanie, who at this point was a police officer and still pursuing John.

A few weeks before John and Sherri got married, Stephanie stopped by their condo, unannounced, to drop off some skis she wanted John to wax. Sherri was uncomfortable with this, asking John about the nature of their relationship and pleading with him not to wax those skis. John reassured Sherri – he and Stephanie had been friends in college, and they had a sexual relationship, but it was over – they were just friends.

He did end up waxing the skis – again, poor boundaries in my opinion even if there was nothing going on at this point, and Sherri Rasmussen was still uncomfortable. Apparently, John thought it was better to placate Stephanie instead of standing up to her. When Stephanie came back to pick up the skis, John handed them over, and Sherri asked her firmly to leave.

And Stephanie left… and then came right back like a boomerang from hell. This is still a couple of weeks before John and Sherri got married – Stephanie thought it would be a great idea to come back to the condo while John was at work, dressed in her LAPD uniform with her gun in plain sight. Stephanie said she was on a break and just popping in to say hello. It freaked Sherri out, because typically at that time of day she would have been at work and John would have been home. Again, John reassured Sherri, but Sherri told her father that she wished John would have set firmer boundaries with Stephanie.

Stephanie Lazarus

I’d love to tell you that this was the last awkward encounter, but alas, I’ve got one more for you. One day, when Sherri was at work, Stephanie busted into her office, dressed in tight shorts and a tube top, presumably trying to seem intimidating. Stephanie shouted at Sherri that if she couldn’t have John, no one could. For some reason, Sherri Rasmussen decided it was best not to share about the LAPD-uniformed incident with John. She did tell him briefly about Stephanie showing up at the hospital, but made it seem like it was no big deal. My best guess is that she was tired of having the same conversation with him, asking him to tell her to back off and him telling her that it was better to just ignore her. But again, Sherri confided in her dad, Nels, which is how we know about what happened.

Spoilers, it was not better to ignore Stephanie.

That brings us to Monday, February 24th, 1986. John and Sherri had gone to see a movie the evening before, and while John was getting ready for work, Sherri was still in bed. This was atypical for her, but she had been voluntold to supervise a human-resources class that day, and she felt as though it was a waste of time. She told John she might call in sick that day, and he told her maybe it was better to just go to work and get it over with. This guy and his placating, man. Anywho, John left for work at about 7:20am. Sherri Rasmussen was still under the covers, debating over whether or not she felt up to adulting that day. 

John dropped off some laundry on his way to work and made it in a little before 8am. He thought about calling Sherri to see what she would do, but he decided against it, in case she had chosen to sleep in. Sol, he called her a couple of hours later, but when there was no answer, he figured she’d gone in to teach that class. Then he called her office, but her secretary hadn’t seen her. Remember youths, this was the ‘80s, and unless you were Zac Morris, you didn’t have a cell phone.

The secretary told John that sometimes when Sherri Rasmussen was teaching a class on Mondays, she wouldn’t have time to stop by her office, so John could rest easy. He did try to call home three or four more times to check in, but the answering machine wasn’t turned on, so he couldn’t leave a message. He figured Sherri just forgot to turn it on, which happened sometimes when she was preoccupied or trying to get out the door quickly.

John wanted to get a hold of Sherri, but his rational brain took over, and he figured there were a lot of valid reasons why he wouldn’t have been able to. So on his way home from work he ran some errands – stopping by the dry cleaner’s to grab their laundry and then going to the UPS store. But when he pulled up to their garage, he was surprised to see the garage door was up, but Sherri’s BMW was gone. There were shards of broken glass by the door, but he thought that must have been from a car window. Sherri had clipped the garage door just a few weeks earlier, so he was thinking this must have been another accident. 

Now, this is a history/true crime podcast, so we know where this is going. But remember, our brains can’t fathom when the worst is truly happening, and often we will try to rationalize things away.

So, John grabs the dry cleaning, heads upstairs, and then sees that the door to the living room is also open. This is the point in which he starts to realize something truly isn’t right.

Trigger warning for this next part. John enters the living room to find his worst nightmare. Sherri Rasmussen was laying on the living room floor, still wearing her red bathrobe. Her face had been beaten and it was bloody. Her expression was one of fear, frozen on her face, indicating that she had died violently. She was barefoot, with her robe thrown open. Her arms were raised and bent, as was one of her legs as if she was trying to get up. John, obviously in shock, reached out to touch Sherri’s leg. It was cold. He felt for a pulse and realized there was none. Then he noticed the bullet hole in the middle of her chest. Sherri Rasmussen had been dead for hours. John called 911.

Police arrived, and originally thought the crime scene looked like a botched burglary. The living room looked as if it was ransacked – the stereo had been knocked over and was laying next to Sherri Rasmussen. A gray vase had been shattered, and a VCR and CD player had been neatly stacked, as if someone was going to carry them out. There was a bloody smudge on the CD player. There were blood smears on the wall. The sliding glass doors to the back balcony were shattered, which explained the glass John saw as he approached their home. Sherri’s BMW was missing, but nothing else appeared to have been taken, apart from John and Sherri’s marriage license.

 Detectives found a quilt on a chair with a bullet hole in it and powder burns, indicating that the killer may have used to muffle the sound of the shots. Sherri had been shot 3 times, with two of those shots being fired point blank on her chest. One of the bullets had passed through Sherri, but the other two were recovered. They were both from a .38 caliber gun. It appeared as though Sherri’s face had been beaten with the vase that was shattered, and there was a bite mark on her left forearm. Officers did swab said bite-mark, but remember, this is 1986, and DNA testing was still in its infancy. They also took a cast to do a tooth-comparison.

Of course, John was suspect numero uno – as we know, the spouse usually does it. But he checked out. Neighbors, family, and friends were all interviewed. Sherri’s BMW was found as week later, parked out on the street with the keys in the ignition. Detectives found fingerprints, one spot of blood, and a strand of brown hair in the car.

Upon interviewing the neighbors, police found that there had been a pair of Latin men who were burglarizing the neighborhood, and in one case, they assaulted a woman. Detectives came up with the theory that these men broke into John and Sherri’s home, thinking that it was unoccupied. They saw Sherri coming down the stairs, and then shot her. A detective shared his theory with John, stating that he didn’t think John was a suspect. Afterwards though, he casually asked if he and Sherri were having problems, of if there were problems with an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. John answered “no.”

Let’s leave John to be ignorant for a second and jump on over to Super-Dad, Nels Rasmussen. Nels had been called by John’s father to share about Sheri’s murder, the day after it happened. Now Nels was angry that he hadn’t been informed by John immediately – but, grief and shock can make us do weird things, so I get it. You see, Nels and Sherri Rasmussen were close, as I alluded to earlier in the story, and he and Loretta, his wife/Sherri’s mom, were so. Freaking. Proud of their intelligent, kick-ass daughter. Nels was less-than-stoked on John though, even in the beginning. Sure, John was nice, but he wasn’t amazing like Sherri was. Also, he was a liberal. How dare.

Nels spoke to the main detective on this case, and immediately asked if he had checked out John’s ex-girlfriend. When Sherri and Nels spoke about Stephanie, Sherri Rasmussen had never mentioned her by name, so Nels only knew her as “the lady cop.” Officers allegedly told Nels that he watched too much cop TV.

Nels detailed the interactions between Sherri Rasmussenand the lady-cop, but John was confused – why would Sherri have told her father but not told John? John didn’t see Stephanie as a suspect – she was a little crazy, he probably thought, but overall harmless. But Sherri had told Nels that she was going to deal with Stephanie herself, since John wouldn’t.

Nels claims were dismissed. Obviously, it couldn’t be one of the LAPD’s own – it had to be two Latin men. Oh, and super weird, the records about Nel’s suspicions mysteriously disappeared. And the interviews about Stephanie Lazarus that John gave are also missing. All of the other evidence was intact, but nothing mentioned Stephanie. What a weird coincidence. Detectives told Nels about the Latin men burglary theory, but it never added up. Detectives thought the struggle lasted about an hour and a half, but Nels didn’t think his daughter would have been able to fight off two grown men for that long. And why would a burglar kill Sherri Rasmussen point blank? Nels asked if the lady-cop had been working that day or if they had examined her, maybe take some pictures of her? Nope, of course not. Why would they do that?

No arrests were made, and the case went cold. As the years went on and DNA testing became more mainstream, Nels and Loretta offered to pay for private DNA analysis of the evidence, but they were denied. The couple also offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to justice for Sherri Rasmussen and cooperated with a show called “Murder One.” He continued to call the police department for years, encouraging them to reopen the case and test the DNA.

John tried to move on, even at one point in 1989 trying to have a relationship with Stephanie – like what the actual fuck. They went to Hawaii together – I guess John even called the lead detective on the case to confirm that Stephanie had nothing to do with Sherri Rasmussen’s murder, which is a weird move for someone who seemed to trust her, but the detective told her that Stephanie was not considered a suspect. Stephanie’s career thrived. She was liked by fellow officers and even ended up marrying one, and she never received any disciplinary action. John also remarried.

This bullshit went on until 2004, when in a routine cold-case investigation, someone got a wild hair to test the saliva from the bite mark. This was hard to do, as it hadn’t been well documented and the criminologist, Jennifer Francis, needed to search the freezers by hand to find the swab and test the saliva. And, shocker, that saliva was female, but it wasn’t linked to any criminal DNA when it was run through the system. 

TWIST – Sherri Rasmussen was not murdered by two Latin men. But listen, it still couldn’t have been a cop obviously one of the burglars was female, so let’s just put that case back into the archives for another 5 years, mmkay?!?!

In 2009, the case was reopened by new investigators with fresh eyes. It did not look like a staged burglary and FINALLY, LAPD officers were confronted with the reality that one of their own was probably the murderer. 

Detectives looked at the file they had on Sherri’s death. The evidence pointed toward someone coming to Sherri’s home with the intent to kill her, not to rob her. It seems as though Sherri had run downstairs, trying to reach the panic button of the security system. The killer stopped her, and the pair fought, with the killer eventually dazing Sherri or maybe knocking her out by hitting her in the head with the vase.

Then the killer got her gun, which Sherri had momentarily blocked her from, and shot Sherri. The blood on top of the CD player was Sherri’s, and it indicated it had come off of the gloved hand of the killer. The CD player and VCR was stacked after Sherri Rasmussen was murdered, so it would look like an interrupted robbery. They read that Stephanie Lazarus, PO, was confirmed as John’s ex-girlfriend – making the connection that PO meant police officer. They ran her name through the system and found that she worked in the art-theft division.

Detectives asked John again about his relationship with Stephanie, but he shared that it was Nels’ theory. So, after 2 decades, an annoyed Nels finally had a willing audience, and he could tell them about the lady cop. 

They realized that Stephanie would have been off-duty the day of Sherri’s murder, and she would have had the know-how to get away with murder. Next they found records that Stephanie owned a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson, which was not her police weapon. And they hypothesized that she would have gotten rid of it after the murder. As it turns out, Stephanie had reported the gun stolen in March of 1986, less than a month after Sherri Rasmussen’s murder. 

Detectives realized that, with the missing evidence, someone, or multiple someone’s, had been trying to protect Stephanie Lazarus, because all of this information they found had been available at the time of the murder. They wanted to be sneaky about their investigation, because information could travel through the grapevine and Stephanie could get wind of it. And in a real baller move, in my opinion, they had a special-ops team follow Stephanie and her daughter to Costco, grab a straw that she used from the trash, and tested the DNA. It was a match to the saliva swabbed from Sherri Rasmussen’s arm.

Stephanie Lazarus needed to be questioned. They didn’t want her to cause a scene or retaliate, so they were pretty sneaky about this. 

Detective Dan Jaramillo asked Stephanie for some help, because they needed her to go to the basement jail to help them interrogate a suspect about an art theft. Notably, before they could enter the holding area, they needed to check their weapons. It was protocol. Then, Dan introduced Stephanie to his partner, Greg Stearns, and asked Stephanie to take a seat in the chair that was usually designated for the suspect.


I’m not going to read the interrogation verbatim – it’s out there and we will obviously link our sources in the episode notes, but here is the gist of it:

Stephanie realizes she’s been tricked into being interrogated. She confirms knowing John Ruetten, noting that they went to school together and lived in the same dorm. She says they were very close friends, and eventually confirms that they dated. They ask about Sherri Rasmussen, and Stephanie at first says she doesn’t know if she ever met her. 

Stephanie starts getting annoyed. It’s fully within her rights to leave the interrogation, but she may have been curious or she may have wanted to look innocent, so she stayed. The investigators tell her that there may have been a relationship between her and John that seemed fishy. She says multiple times that “it’s been a million years ago.”

They continue to ask about Sherri Rasmussen, and Stephanie continues to rack her brain, telling them she barely remembers anything about her, except she confirms that she knows she was murdered. You know, from a poster. At work.

They keep pushing, and then she changes her story. She met Sherri Rasmussen, they met, the talked, multiple times. She confirms that John would date other people and claims that he would have still been trying to see her while he was dating, or maybe even married to, Sherri. So obviously, being such a good person, Stephanie went to Sherri to tell her that John was brothering her while he was dating Sherri. Because obviously Stephanie would have told John to stop calling her if he was married.

Stephanie ends up confirming that she talked with Sherri Rasmussenat the hospital in which Sherri was working. The investigators try to play it cool, as they don’t want Stephanie to recognize that she’s a suspect. They tell her they literally just got the file and saw her name on it.

Stephanie continues to be wishy-washy about whether she’s ever been to Sherri’s and John’s home, eventually confirming she may have been there for something social. And maybe she had told John at some point to pick between her and Sherri, but seriously, it wasn’t a big deal. They ask her about a reported altercation between Stephanie and Sherri at the house, but she keeps saying that it doesn’t sound familiar.

It was seriously infuriating to read.

She finally realizes she’s a suspect and asks if she needs a lawyer. Investigators remind Stephanie that she’s here of her own free will and she can leave at any time, which she doesn’t. They ask her for a DNA swab. She says she’d like a lawyer, and thanks the detectives for the professional courtesy of discussing this with her, at which point she walks out and was arrested formally in the hallway.

Finally, in March of 2012, Stephanie Lazarus was convicted of murdering Sherri Rasmussen and sentenced to 27 years. Sherri’s parents have sued Stephanie and the department, though there is not enough evidence to conclude that there was a cover-up back in the 1980s. But there is still missing evidence.

John Reutten has officially apologized to Nels and Loretta. He says he felt awful that he knew the murderer personally. He says it was a “stupid move” to have sex with Stephanie while he was with Sherri, claiming he thought it would give Stephanie closure. 

In my opinion, the only closure here is the fact that Stephanie Lazarus is in jail. But it does not bring back the life of the brilliant and beautiful Sherri Rasmussen.

Story 2 – Lake Nyos Disaster

Located in northwestern Cameroon, Lake Nyos sits in a crater on the edge of an inactive volcano in the Oku Volcanic Field.

And in 1986 this lake killed 1,746 people. And not a single one of those people drowned. I’m going to tell you this story today.

Lake Nyos

But first, let’s talk about Lake Nyos. What the hell is it and where did it come from. So, first and foremost, where is Lake Nyos? It sits high in a volcanic plain amidst the Cameroon line of volcanoes, which stretches into the Gulf of Guinea. So this chain of volcanos is like a natural boundary between Nigeria and Cameroon. And sometimes in these kinds of volcanic chains lakes develop when groundwater meets hot lava and explodes. The hole from the eruption eventually fills with water, forming a crater lake.

Geologists believe the Nyos formed about 400 years ago, which is pretty recent considering the fact that the area has been volcanically active since the South American and African tectonic plates (skin puzzle…lol) split about… 110 million years ago.

So, we have talked a little bit about volcanos over the last 76 episodes. We talked about the Supervolcano in Yellowstone. We talked about the eruption in Indonesia. Volcanos are fucking dangerous – obviously – they unexpectedly spew 2200 degree liquid into the air occasionally. I personally would not live next to one – but despite the inherent dangers of living so close to an active volcanoes, roughly 10,000 people live near Lake Nyos and its volcanic neighbors. Why? Because the soil on and around the old volcano is so extremely rich and fertile, people want to live there and farm there.

Here’s the problem. There is a scientific phenomenon that is brewing under the surface of this lake. So, picture a volcano. Deep inside the volcano – 50 miles under the surface – there is a pocket of magma. Now, you might not know this but magma contains carbon dioxide. Actually – the more carbon dioxide, the more likely a volcano is to erupt.

Now, with a volcano there is a place for this to carbon dioxide to escape – the hole at the top of the volcano. With Lake Nyos a lake formed at the top of the volcano, so when that carbon dioxide builds up – instead of escaping, it slowly percolates through the Earth’s crust and accumulates at the bottom of the lake. Essentially carbon dioxide builds in colder, deep lake water and creates a heavy layer on the bottom. The weight of the warmer, upper layer of water forms a lid that keeps the gas down — much like a cork on a bottle.

Fun fact, Nyos is one of only three lakes known to be saturated with carbon dioxide in this way. The other two lakes are Lake Monoun, also in Cameroon, and Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.

So, let’s talk about this in a way that we can understand. Rachel, what happens when you have fizzy carbonated liquid stuck under a cork and the carbonation builds and builds and builds (say, from shaking the bottle)… it builds and it builds and it builds and eventually….. something has to give. For us – we call this poppin’ bottles. In the volcanic lake work, we call this a limnic eruption.

Well. In August of 1986, Lake Nyos popped some bottles. And the result was catastrophe.

On the day of the eruption, things were still. Farmers were in their fields and the beautiful clear blue lake sat peacefully at the top of the volcano – just like it always had. Then, farmers began to hear rumbling. Scientists think this could have been the lake itself or it could have been a rockslide. If it was the rockslide, then that could have been the external trigger that started everything. Perhaps falling rocks sunk to the bottom of the lake and pushed up some gas and started a chain reaction.

The lake literally exploded, a fountain of water over 300 feet shot into the air and a small tsunami happened on the lake. But far more deadly than the water was the gas.

About 1.2 cubic kilometers of CO2 was released in roughly 20 seconds. That’s enough CO2 to, if settled on the ground, cover 13 miles of land with a little more than 3 feet of gas. Essentially, a massive wave of deadly gas swept over the countryside.

A man named Ephriam Che was miles away, in his mud-brick house on a cliff above Nyos. He heard the rumbling of the explosion and looked outside. He noticed a strange white mist rising from the lake in the distance, but thought it was just rain. Then he went to bed, because he suddenly felt a little ill.

Down below, near the lake’s shore, Halima Suley, a cowherd, and her four children had retired for the night. She also heard the rumbling; it sounded, she would recall, like “the shouting of many voices.” A great wind ripped through the thatched huts that she and her extended family were staying in. And then Halima promptly passed out. The fact that Halima didn’t die was insane because most villages near the lake almost no chance of survival. In one nearby town that had about 800 residents only six people survived. And that’s only because they quickly realized something bad was happening and escaped to higher ground on motorcycles.

Other nearby villagers just stepped out of their houses to see what this rumbling sound was and they would be overtaken by the cloud of gas and *boom* they fell dead at their doorsteps. People taking naps were killed without their relatives even realizing anything had happened. Interestingly enough, because the gas was super concentrated it settled on the ground and therefore anyone that was lower than 3 feet (sitting, laying down, children, etc.) died, whereas anyone standing up was basically unaffected. So, remember Che? He was up on a cliff – so he felt sick but wasn’t killed.

He ventured down the mountain in the morning and right away noticed something strange…

Lake Nyos, red like hell

Normally the morning was full of singing birds and buzzing bug sounds… the bustling of farmers. It was silent. Then, he glanced over at the lake. Normally it was crystal blue – like hell itself the lake was deep red. Science says that this was probably caused by the iron that was at the bottom of the lake getting churned up, but I’m sure to Che it was just shocking.

Then he heard shrieking. It was Harima Suley, who was screaming… “Why are these people lying here? Why won’t they move again?”

Scattered about were the bodies of Suley’s four children, 31 other members of her family and their 400 cattle. Suley kept trying to shake her lifeless family awake. “On that day there were no flies on the dead,” says Che. The flies were dead too. His panic set it. He ran on downhill, to the village where his family lived. Every one of them was dead, his parents, siblings, uncles and aunts.

He thought it was the end of the world.

And for that little part of the world, it was. In all, 1,746 people were killed, and more than 3,500 livestock animals perished in a matter of minutes.

Many of the victims were found right where they’d normally be around 9 o’clock at night, suggesting they died on the spot. Bodies lay near cooking fires, clustered in doorways and in bed. Some lucky people laid there unconscious for more than a day and then finally woke up. Sadly, some people saw that their entire family was dead and completed suicide.

One of the few survivors, Joseph Nkwain, said: “I could not speak; I became unconscious; I could not open my mouth because then I smelled something terrible … Then I heard my daughter snoring in a terrible way, very abnormal…. When crossing to my daughter’s bed … I collapsed and fell … I wanted to speak, my breath would not come out…. My daughter was already dead.”

Within days scientists from around the world converged on Nyos. And they were scared too! They didn’t know what the Eff happened — or if it was about to happen again. The Cameroon military had buried human victims in mass graves. Thousands of cattle lay dead, their carcasses bloated and decomposing. Heavy rains fell.

But the few survivors’ – people who lost everything – were trying to be hospitable to the scientists. They were inviting the researchers into their homes and cooking meals of corn mush over open fires.

At first, they assumed the long-dormant volcano under its crater had erupted, spewing out some kind of deadly fumes. The scientists motored out onto Nyos in inflatable dinghies to take water samples and look for clues. Once again, some assumed that an underwater volcano had erupted. But others immediately grasped that the villagers around Nyos had perished under the same conditions previously documented at Lake Monoun which had a similar instance a few years prior – but that instance had only killed 37 people.

Over months and years, the researchers confirmed that it was the CO2 that killed the people. The people of Nyos and surrounding areas had suffocated. What’s worse… they were like “holy shit… this could happen again.”

It was a natural disaster. It happened once before it could happen again.

The researchers considered various measures to stop this from happening again. They considered blowing out the carbon dioxide by dropping bombs (too dangerous); dumping in massive quantities of lime in order to neutralize the gas (too expensive); or digging tunnels in the lake bed to drain the gas-laden bottom waters (way too expensive). In the end, they settled on a low-tech approach: running a pipe from the lake’s deepest water layer to the surface, gradually releasing the gas to disperse quickly and harmlessly in the air. In theory, such a pipe, once primed, would carry the pressurized water from the depths and shoot it into the air like a natural geyser—a controlled explosion that could be sustained for years.

Using seed money from the European Union and private sources, a team in 1990 began venting the gas. Then the money ran out. The Cameroon government said it could not afford the $2 million to $3 million for permanent degassing installations. International aid agencies couldn’t grasp the concept so they didn’t want to fund it either. The Cameroonians were lobbying oil companies, governments and other organizations to pay for venting. Finally, in 1999, the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) came up with $433,000 for a permanent pipe to be installed at Nyos.

By January 2001, the researchers had assembled rafts and piping at the site. Attached to a raft in the middle of the lake, a 5.7-inch-diameter pipe reached 666 feet to the deepest water layer. The Cameroon military provided emergency oxygen tanks for all workers in case of a rogue carbon dioxide release. The residents of the area all retreated to distant high ground, and then with the push of a button… the pump was activated and a 148-foot spray shot into the sunlight at 100 miles per hour. A small crowd let out a cheer. The degassing of Lake Nyos had begun.

But with 5,500 tons of carbon dioxide still pouring into the lake annually, one pipe barely keeps up. Researchers think it will be 30 years before enough dissolved carbon dioxide can be vented to make the lake safe. Five pipes might do the job within five or six years—but so far funding has not materialized.

As far as locals are concerned, the venting of the lake cannot happen fast enough. Families have begun drifting back into nearby hills, getting the EFF away from that scary lake that is called Nyos. Which, PS – “Nyos,” means “good” in the regional language, but in a related tongue, it means “to crush.”

I’ll leave you today with a quick update from the two survivors we talked about.

Che, along with his wife and children, survived. However, his uncle’s seven children had been orphaned by the disaster, and tradition required Che to adopt them all, bringing his brood to 11. Che’s income has been boosted by the foreign scientists working in the area, who pay him to measure lake levels and guard equipment, among other things.

As for Halima Suley, she and her husband Ahmadou who also survived, now have five youngsters born to them since the tragedy. They had 400 cows in 1986, now they only have 40. But they are a happy family; their oldest is 15-year-old Ahmadou and their youngest 2-year-old Nafih. Halima said that she is no longer thinking about the disaster. As she said, “I have more children. I’m thinking about the children I have now. The only problem is a lack of cattle to feed them and to pay for them to go to school.”

Her husband Ahmadou says, “If I think about what I was, what the family was, I can go crazy. So I try not to. We are believers. Your children can survive you, or you can survive your children—it is all in the hands of God.”  

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