Scientists are worried that the worst might be yet to come from Indonesia's Mount Meriapi as towering clouds of hot ash gushed from the mouth of the volcano today, hours after its most explosive eruption in a deadly week sent screaming women and children fleeing mountainside villages and emergency shelters.
Surono, a state volcanologist, who had said earlier that continual eruptions since October 26 appeared to be easing pressure behind Mount Merapi's magma dome near the tip of the crater. "It looks like we may be entering an even worse stage," said: "We have no idea what's happening now."
As rocks and debris rained from the sky late yesterday, soldiers forced villagers into trucks and carried them down the rumbling mountain. Several abandoned homes were set on fire and dozens of carcasses of incinerated cattle littered the scorched flanks.
No new casualties were reported after that fiery blast or a pre-dawn eruption Thursday, which spewed searing clouds of gas and ash nearly six kilometres into the air.
Residents in towns up to 240 kilometres away said trees, cars and roads were blanketed in heavy gray ash.
Mount Merapi, which means "Fire Mountain," has erupted many times in the past century, often with deadly results.
Forty people have died since it burst back to life just over a week ago. In 1994, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were set ablaze, leaving up to 1,300 dead.
As with other volcanoes in this seismically charged country, tens of thousands call its fertile slopes home. More than 70,000 are now packed in crowded government camps well away from the base.
Djarot Nugroho, a disaster management agency official, said funds to buy instant noodles, clean water and other supplies for the refugees could run out within days unless the government declared a national disaster, bringing in much-needed federal funds.
There have been more than a dozen strong eruptions at Merapi in the past week and thousands of volcanic tremors and ash bursts, prompting officials to close some air routes above the mountain.
It appeared unlikely, however, that the Qantas plane forced to make an emergency landing after one of its four engines failed while flying over the island of Batam, 1,400 kilometres away was tied to the smouldering mountain.
The danger zone was widened from 10 to 15 kilometres from the peak, meanwhile, because of the heightened threat.
Tentrem Wahono, 50, who fled with his family on a motorbike from their village of Kaliurang, about 10 kilometres from the crater, said: "We were racing with the explosive sounds as the searing ash chased us from behind."
Soldiers and police blocked all roads leading up the 3,000-metre mountain, chasing away curious onlookers and television crews and reporters.