MOUNT MERAPI, INDONESIA—Indonesia’s most volatile volcano erupted Tuesday, after scientists warned that pressure building beneath its dome could trigger the most powerful eruption in years. A 2-month-old baby reportedly died as panicked villagers fled the area.
Up to 20 people were injured by hot ash spewed from Mount Merapi, said an AP reporter who witnessed them being taken away for treatment.
Some 11,400 villagers who live on the 9,737-foot (2,968-metre) -high mountain were urged to evacuate, but only those within four miles (seven kilometres) of the crater were forced by authorities to do so. Most of those who fled were the elderly and children. Some adults said they decided to stay to tend to homes and farms on the fertile slopes.
There are fears that the current activity could foreshadow a much more destructive explosion in the coming weeks or months, though it is possible, too, that the volcano will settle back down after a slow, long period of letting off steam.
As they contended with the volcano, Indonesian officials were also trying to assess the impact of Monday’s 7.7-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, about 800 miles (1,300 kilometres) from Merapi. The temblor caused a tsunami that left hundreds dead or missing on a string of remote islands.
Rescuers battled rough seas Tuesday to reach remote Indonesian islands pounded by a 10-foot tsunami that swept away homes, killing at least 113 people. Scores more were missing and information was only beginning to trickle in from the sparsely populated surfing destination, so casualties were expected to rise.
The quake struck just 13 miles (20 kilometres) beneath the ocean floor and was followed by at least 14 aftershocks, the largest measuring 6.2, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
The fault that ruptured Monday on Sumatra island’s coast also caused the 2004 quake and monster Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
Though hundreds of disaster officials were unable to get to many of the villages on the Mentawai islands — reachable only by a 12-hour boat ride — they were preparing for the worst.
“We have 200 body bags on the way, just in case,” said Mujiharto, who heads the Health Ministry’s crisis centre, shortly before announcing a five-fold increase in the death toll.
2-month-old baby dies in chaos
Private MetroTV reported that, due to chaos surrounding the volcano eruption, a baby died when a mother ran in panic. Its report cited a local doctor and showed the mother weeping as the baby was covered with a white blanket at a hospital. The report did not make clear if it was a boy or girl.
Subandriyo, the chief volcanologist in the area, said the eruption started just before dusk Tuesday. The volcano had rumbled and groaned for hours.
“There was a thunderous rumble that went on for ages, maybe 15 minutes,” said Sukamto, a farmer who by nightfall had yet to abandon his home on the slopes. “Then huge plumes of hot ash started shooting up into the air.”
Scientists have warned the pressure building beneath the dome could presage one of the biggest eruptions in years at Merapi, literally Mountain of Fire, which lies on the main island of Java, some 310 miles (500 kilometres) southeast of the capital Jakarta.
The alert level for Merapi has been raised to its highest level.
“The energy is building up. . . . We hope it will release slowly,” government volcanologist Surono told reporters. “Otherwise, we’re looking at a potentially huge eruption, bigger than anything we’ve seen in years.”
In 2006, an avalanche of blistering gases and rock fragments raced down the volcano and killed two people. A similar eruption in 1994 killed 60 people, and 1,300 people died in a 1930 blast.
This vast archipelago is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity due to its location on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire — a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.
There are more than 129 active volcanoes to watch in Indonesia, which is spread across 17,500 islands.
‘We kept looking back to see if a wave was coming’: resident
Hundreds of wooden and bamboo homes were washed away on the island of Pagai, with water flooding crops and roads up to 600 yards (meters) inland. In Muntei Baru, a village on Silabu island, 80 per cent of the houses were badly damaged.
Those and other islets hit were part of the Mentawai island chain, a popular and laid-back surfing spot 175 miles (280 kilometres) from Sumatra.
A group of Australians said they were hanging out on the back deck of their chartered surfing vessel, anchored in a bay, when the temblor hit just before 10 p.m. It generated a wave that caused them to smash into a neighbouring boat, and before they knew it, a fire was ripping through their cabin.
“We threw whatever we could that floated — surfboards, fenders — then we jumped into the water,” Rick Hallet told Australia’s Nine Network. “Fortunately, most of us had something to hold on to … and we just washed in the wetlands, and scrambled up the highest trees that we could possibly find and sat up there for an hour and a half.”
Ade Edward, a disaster management agency official, said crews from several ships were still unaccounted for in the Indian Ocean.
The quake also jolted towns along Sumatra’s western coast — including Padang, which last year was hit by a deadly 7.6-magnitude tremor that killed more than 700. Mosques blared tsunami warnings over their loudspeakers.
“Everyone was running out of their houses,” said Sofyan Alawi, adding that the roads leading to surrounding hills were quickly jammed with thousands of cars and motorcycles.
“We kept looking back to see if a wave was coming,” said 28-year-old resident Ade Syahputra.