Indonesian volcano burns whole villages

A surge of searing gas raced down the sides of Mount Merapi on Friday, smothering entire villages as it killed or seriously burned those caught in its path. The death toll after the volcano’s largest eruption in a century soared to 122.

The worst hit village of Bronggang lay 15 kilometres from the fiery crater, just on the perimeter of the government-delineated “danger zone.” Crumpled roofs, charred carcasses of cattle and broken chairs – all layered in white ash and soot – dotted the smoldering landscape.

The zone has since been expanded to a ring 20 kilometres from the peak, bringing it to the edge of the ancient royal capital of Yogyakarta, which has been put on its highest alert.

Sri Sucirathasri said her family had stayed in their Bronggang home Thursday night because they hadn’t been told to leave.

They awoke in the dark as the mountain let out thunderous claps and tried desperately to outrun the flows, which reached speeds of 100kph, on a motorbike. Her mother, father and 12-year-old sister, Prisca, left first, but with gray ash blocking out any light, they mistakenly drove into – rather than away from – the volcano’s dangerous discharge.

The 18-year-old Sri went looking for them when she heard her mother’s screams, leaving at home an older sister, who died when the house became engulfed in flames.

“It was a safe place. There were no signs to evacuate,” said Sri, a vacant gaze fixed on Prisca, whose neck and face are burned a shiny ebony, her features nearly melted away.

Their mother is still missing. Their father, whose feet and ankles are burned, is being treated in another ward.

“I don’t know what to say,” she whispers when asked if she blames officials for not warning the family. “Angry at who? I’m just sad. And very sick.”

Merapi’s latest round of eruptions began October 26, followed by more than a dozen other powerful blasts and thousands of tremors.

With each new eruption, scientists and officials have steadily pushed the villagers who live along Merapi’s fertile slopes farther from the crater. But after initially predicting earlier eruptions would ease pressure under the magma dome, experts who have spent a lifetime studying the volcano now say the don’t know what to expect.

Scientists can study the patterns of volcanoes, but their eruptions are essentially unpredictable, as Merapi’s increasingly intense blasts have proved.

On Friday, the towering plumes of ash rained dust on windshields of cars 480 kilometres away, although a rain near the mountain in the afternoon turned much of it to sludge. Bursts of hot clouds occasionally interrupted aid efforts, with rescuers screaming, “Watch out! Hot cloud!”

The eruption released 50 million cubic metres of volcanic material, making it “the biggest in at least a century,” said state volcanologist Gede Swantika as plumes of smoke continued to shoot up more than 10,000 metres.

Soldiers pulled at least 78 bodies from homes and streets blanketed by ash up to 30 centimetres deep Friday, raising the overall toll to 122, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.

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

“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.

“There was an explosion … and it got worse, the ash and debris raining down,” he said from a hospital.

The living – with clothes, blankets and even mattresses fused to their skin by the 750-degree Celsius heat – were carried away on stretchers following the first big explosion just before midnight.

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

Despite being at the foot of Indonesia’s deadliest volcano, Yogyakarta has only one burn unit – at Sardjito. The facility is limited to 10 beds, though, and so turns away any patient without facial burns or whose body is burned less than 40 per cent, according to Sigit Priohutomo, a senior official at Sardjito.

“We’re totally overwhelmed here!” hospital spokesman Heru Nogroho said.

More than 100,000 people living on the mountain 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.

They were told to stay away Friday. The government also announced a NZ$13.8 million programme to buy the cows on the mountain to keep farmers off its slopes, and to provide compensation for animals lost in the eruptions.

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.

While Friday’s explosion was the largest in volume in a century, an eruption at Merapi in 1930 killed many more – 1,300.

Even that toll pales in comparison to other volcanoes in the region: Indonesia’s Krakatoa killed at least 36,000 people in 1883, in an eruption that could be heard 3,200 kilometres) away and blackened skies region-wide for months.

When the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo exploded in 1991 after a 500-year slumber, about 800 people died as the billions of tons of volcanic debris poured from the cone, erasing entire farm communities and altering the world’s climate.

The May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens caused the volcano’s north flank to collapse, triggering the largest landslide ever recorded. The blast killed 57 people, flattened 596 square kilometres of forests and blew 400 metre off the peak.

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