Indonesia’s volcanic cloud of death

2010-11-05 09:10

The heat cloud caught them asleep in their beds or talking on their phones, leaving a trail of death as it rolled silently over the village near Indonesia’s Mount Merapi volcano.

Search and rescue teams pulled 31 bodies from one group of houses in Argomulyo this morning, but other parts of the village – 18km from the volcano – were still too hot to enter.

The cloud was followed by a torrent of ash and mud that poured down the dry bed of the Gendol River, smothering homes in a sticky, burning tar.

“I found three bodies. A child, mother and father. They were still on their beds. They must have been sleeping when the hot ash struck their house,” said rescuer Utha as he delivered 10 bodies to a hospital in the city of Yogyakarta.

“Their bodies were badly burnt. We also found a dead man with a phone still on his hand.”

Another rescuer, Niko Andrian, loaded his pick-up with 10 bodies but counted 20 more still in the ruins of the village, which lies well outside the official danger zone.

“We found most of the bodies on the bank of the river,” he said.

At least nine houses had collapsed into the river and smoke rose from the smouldering mud.

“We have to step back as the temperature there is extremely hot. With that temperature, a steel stick would melt,” said soldier Widodo.

Elsewhere, witnesses described scenes of chaos and panic as residents scrambled in the predawn darkness to escape what scientists have called the mountain’s most violent eruption in a century.

Indonesia’s most active volcano killed 1 300 people in 1930, but even though the total death toll from its latest series of eruptions since October 26 is only about 100, they are considered the biggest since 1872.

“Judging from the material emitted, Merapi’s eruption this time is bigger than the 1930 eruption,” said government volcanologist Subandrio.

The government no doubt saved many lives when it ordered a general evacuation on October 25.

The evacuation zone has since been expanded twice and was extended to 20km around the fuming crater today, forcing thousands more from their homes.

More than 100 000 people are crammed into temporary shelters around central Java, waiting for the 2 914m “Mountain of Fire” to calm down.

Merapi is a sacred landmark in Javanese tradition. One of the first to die on October 26 was the volcano’s spiritual guardian, Grandfather Marijan, who refused to evacuate and was killed as he prayed on the mountain’s slopes.

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