MOUNT MERAPI, INDONESIA // Soldiers joined rescue operations yesterday following an explosion by Mount Merapi, pulling at least 78 bodies from homes and streets blanketed by ash up to 30cm deep.
Merapi was active throughout the day yesterday. Searing gas avalanched down the volcano just before midnight on Thursday, torching houses and trees and incinerating villagers as they fled the volcano’s worst eruption in a century.
By late yesterday afternoon, the death toll over the past two weeks from the volcanic activity had risen to more than 120.
The injured, some with clothes, blankets and even mattresses fused to their skin by the 750°C heat, were carried away on stretchers.
In Bronggang village, the hardest hit area five kilometres from the crater, crumpled roofs, charred carcasses of cattle, and broken chairs, all layered in white soot, dotted the smouldering landscape.
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.
Its latest activity started on October 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 20km from the crater.
Previously, villages such as Bronggang were considered to be in the “safe zone”.
“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 100kph.
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.
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 at Sardjito.
Despite earlier predictions that dozens of big explosions that followed the initial blast last week 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, “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 10,000 metres.
More than 100,000 people who live along Merapi’s slopes have been evacuated to crowded emergency shelters during the last week. Some return to their villages during lulls in activity to tend livestock. They were told to stay away yesterday.
Even scientists from Merapi’s monitoring station were told to move down the mountain. They were scrambling to repair four of their five seismographs destroyed by the heavy soot showers.
Before yesterday, the death toll from Merapi stood at 44, with most dying in the October 26 blast. With the new deaths around the village of Bronggang it climbed to 122, the National Disaster Management Agency said on its website.
In 1994, 60 people were killed by Merapi, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were torched, leaving up to 1,300 dead.
Indonesia 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 tsunami slammed into the remote Mentawai islands on the western end of the country, killing at least 428 people.