Indonesia volcano burns whole villages; 118 dead
MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia (AP) – The tiny hospital at the foot of Indonesia’s most volatile volcano is struggling to cope with victims brought in after the mountain’s most powerful eruption in a century. Some have clothes, blankets and even mattresses fused to their skin.
With few beds and the only burn unit it town, doctors have been forced to turn people away.
A surge of searing gas raced down the sides of Mount Merapi at highway speeds Friday, setting houses and trees ablaze and blackening the bodies of those caught in its path.
The number of people killed by Merapi since Oct. 26 soared to 118 after the nightmarish eruption and sent tens of thousands more into already crowded emergency shelters in the shadow of the volcano.
It continued to rumble and groan Saturday, spitting gray clouds of ash and gas high into the air.
“It’s scary. … The eruption just keeps going on,” said Wajiman, who was sitting in a shelter near a girl reading a newspaper headlined “Merapi isn’t finished yet.”
The worst hit village of Bronggang lay nine miles (15 kilometers) 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 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the peak, bringing it to the edge of the ancient royal capital of Yogyakarta, which has been put on its highest alert. Poor visibility from ash showers snarled traffic and forced closed the city’s airport for a second day Saturday.
The biggest threat is the Code River, which flows from the 9,700-foot (3,000-meter) mountain into the heart of the city of 400,000 and could act as conduit for deadly volcanic mudflows that can race at speeds of 60 mph (100 kph).
Already, it is clogged with cold lava, mud, rocks and other debris.
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 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 was 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 were burned a shiny ebony, her features nearly melted away.
Their mother was still missing. Their father, whose feet and ankles were burned, was being treated in another ward.
“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered when asked if she blamed officials for not warning the family. “Angry at who? I’m just sad. And very sick.”
Merapi’s latest round of eruptions began Oct. 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 shown.
Towering plumes of ash rained dust on windshields of cars 300 miles (480 kilometers) away Friday, although 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 latest eruption released 1,765 million cubic feet (50 million cubic meters) of volcanic material, making it “the biggest in at least a century,” state volcanologist Gede Swantika said as plumes of smoke continued to shoot up more than 30,000 feet (10,000 meters).
Soldiers pulled at least 78 bodies from homes and streets blanketed by ash up to a foot (30 centimeters) deep, raising the overall toll to 118, according to the National Disaster Management Agency. It was not immediately clear why it revised downward it’s earlier toll of 122.
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.
The living were carried away on stretchers following the first big explosion just before midnight.
More than 200 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.
“We’re totally overwhelmed here!” hospital spokesman Heru Nogroho said.
The facility is limited to 10 beds, though, and it turns away any patient without facial burns or whose body is burned less than 40 percent, according to Sigit Priohutomo, a senior official at Sardjito.
Nearly 200,000 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 Saturday. The government also announced an $11 million program 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, including Indonesia. Krakatoa killed at least 36,000 people in 1883, in an eruption that could be heard 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) away and blackened skies region-wide for months.