Indonesian Volcano Has Biggest Eruption In 130 Years


MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia — Searing gas avalanched down an Indonesian volcano with a thunderous roar, torching houses and trees and incinerating villagers as they fled Mount Merapi's worst eruption in a century.

Dozens of bodies found Friday raised the death toll to 122.

The injured — with clothes, blankets and even mattresses fused to their skin by the 1,400-degree Fahrenheit heat — were carried away on stretchers following the first big explosion just before midnight.

Soldiers joined rescue operations in hardest-hit Bronggang, a village nine miles from the crater, pulling at least 78 bodies from homes and streets blanketed by ash up to one-foot deep.

Crumpled roofs, charred carcasses of cattle, and broken chairs — all layered in white soot — dotted the smoldering landscape. Merapi was active throughout the day Friday.

The volcano, in the heart of densely populated Java island, has erupted scores of times, killing more than 1,500 people in the last century alone. But tens of thousands of people live on its rolling slopes, drawn to soil made fertile by molten lava and volcanic debris.

'The heat surrounded us'

Its latest activity started Oct. 26. After Friday's explosion — said by volcanologists to be the biggest since the 1870s — officials announced by loudspeaker that the mountain's danger zone had been expanded to 12 miles from the crater.

"The heat surrounded us and there was white smoke everywhere," said Niti Raharjo, 47, who was thrown from his motorbike along with his 19-year-old son while trying to flee.

"I saw people running, screaming in the dark, women so scared they fell unconscious," he said from a hospital where they were both being treated for burns.

"There was an explosion that sounded like it was from a war ... and it got worse, the ash and debris raining down."

The greatest danger posed by Merapi has always been pyroclastic flows — like those that roared down the southern slopes at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.

With bodies found in front of houses and in streets, it appeared that many of the villagers died from the searing gas while trying to escape, said Col. Tjiptono, a deputy police chief.

Bodies pile up at morgue

More than 150 injured people — most with burns and some with respiratory problems, broken bones and cuts — waited to be treated at the tiny Sardjito hospital, where the bodies piled up in the morgue, and two other hospitals.

"We're totally overwhelmed here!" said Heru Nogroho, a spokesman for Sardjito hospital.

At least 58 burned bodies had been brought to Sardjito hospital on Friday, Metro TV quoted Rizal, a forensic doctor from Yogyakarta's police identification unit, as saying.

"It is possible the death toll will rise as we continue to search for victims," said Rizal, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.

A Reuters photographer near the volcano said he saw blackened bodies being carried into Sardjito hospital on Friday morning.

"Their clothes had melted onto their skin," he said.

The air in Yogyakarta is now so thick with ash that motorists must drive with their headlights on during the day, he said.

"We can't see anything, it's very dark. The trees are all white with ash," he said. "It's like it's raining sand."

'Fire Mountain'

Up until Friday, the village of Bronggang, home to around 80 families, was considered to be within the safety zone, despite signs that the notoriously unpredictable mountain could be ready to blow.

Mount Merapi, which means "Fire Mountain," has erupted many times in the last century. In 1994, over a period of several days, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were torched, leaving up to 1,300 dead.

Activity at the mountain forced an airport in Yogyakarta to close Friday because runways were covered in heavy white ash. It was not clear when it would reopen, said Agus Andriyanto, who oversees operations.

Even scientists from Merapi's monitoring station were told they had to pack up and move down the mountain. They were scrambling to repair four of their five seismographs destroyed by the heavy soot showers.

Despite earlier predictions that dozens of big explosions that followed Merapi's initial Oct. 26 blast would ease pressure building up behind a magma dome, eruptions have been intensifying, baffling experts who have long monitored Merapi.

In terms of the amount of volcanic material released — 1,765 million cubic feet, "it was the biggest in at least a century," said Gede Swantika, a state volcanologist, as plumes of smoke continued to shoot up more than 30,000 feet.

More than 100,000 people living along Merapi's fertile slopes have been evacuated to crowded emergency shelters, many by force, in the last week. Some return to their villages during lulls in activity, however, to tend to their livestock.

Before Friday, the death toll from Merapi stood at 44, with most of the victims in the first, Oct. 26 blast.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanoes because it sits along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the Pacific Ocean.

The volcano's initial blast occurred less than 24 hours after a towering tsunami slammed into the remote Mentawai islands on the western end of the country, sweeping entire villages to sea and killing at least 428 people.

There, too, thousands of people were displaced, many living in government camps.

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