Mount Merapi in Indonesia spewed another searing cloud of ash down its slopes on Sunday, prompting panic and chaos among thousands of villagers who had taken advantage of a lull in activity to rush home and check on their livestock.
The new eruption came as rescuers hundreds of kilometres away finally were able to resume food deliveries and evacuate injured victims of a tsunami triggered by a 7.7—magnitude earthquake near a chain of remote islands off western Sumatra. The number of people killed in the twin catastrophes climbed to almost 500 on Sunday.
Sirens blared, and people jumped into rivers trying to escape Mount Merapi’s latest fury, while others sprinted down the mountain or sped off in cars and trucks, local disaster official Rusdiyanto said.
It wasn’t clear if there were any new casualties on Sunday, though an official said the ash cloud was not near populated areas. The volcano has killed 38 people since Tuesday.
The notoriously unpredictable mountain had been mostly quiet on Sunday after letting out its most powerful eruption of the week on Saturday. Despite warnings from officials, thousands of the more than 53,000 people who had been evacuated from the danger zone rushed back Sunday morning to check on their livestock high up on the scorched slopes.
“My farm has been destroyed by volcanic debris and thick dust. ... All I have left now are my cows and goats,” said Subarkah, who lives less than two miles (three kilometers) from the peak. “I have to find grass and bring it up to them, otherwise they’ll die.”
Since the eruptions began on Tuesday, officials have struggled to keep villagers off the slopes of Merapi, which means Fire Mountain. More than 2,000 troops had to be called in Saturday to force men, women and children to leave.
The airport in Solo, 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of Merapi, was forced to close Sunday for at least an hour due to volcanic dust that fell like rain, said Bambang Ervan, a spokesman for the transportation ministry.
National airline Garuda Indonesia also rerouted flights from Yogyakarta because of concerns that volcanic dust from Merapi, 30 kilometers to the north, would damage plane engines, airline spokesman Pujobroto said.
The 46-minute eruption on Sunday shot dust about two kilometers into the air and a cloud of hot ash a kilometre down Merapi’s eastern and southern slopes, said Surono, chief of the Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation.
“There should be no casualties from the new eruption because the flow of hot ash is lower and far from populated areas,” Mr Surono said.
He said heavy rain on Sunday increased the danger of another larger eruption because water falling into the fiery crater can create sudden vapour pressure in the lava dome, he said.
In the last century, more than 1,400 people have been killed by Merapi, one of the world’s most active volcanos. Since Saturday’s large eruption, the volcano has had 63 lava bursts and nine small gas emissions, said Mr Subandrio, an official with the volcano’s monitoring agency. “The trend seems to be that the volcanic activity is increasing,” he said.
Indonesia, a vast island nation of 235 million people, straddles a series of fault lines and volcanoes known as the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The fault that ruptured Monday, running the length of the west coast of Sumatra island, also caused the 9.1- magnitude quake that unleashed a monster tsunami around the Indian Ocean in 2004, killing 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
Earlier on Sunday, Indonesian rescue workers were combing through hamlets on Mount Merapi’s slopes to forcibly evacuate residents who defied an evacuation order. Rescue teams of soldiers, police and volunteers were looking for more residents at four hamlets of Merapi’s southern slopes, one of the most dangerous areas.
The state-run Antara quoted a village chief named Bejo as saying that residents of the four hamlets would be evacuated to safety. “If there are still some residents staying at home, we will appeal them to immediately get into the evacuation vehicle. If they resist leaving then we force them,” said Bejo, who like many Indonesians uses only by one name.
There were reportedly several residents who defied the evacuation order, fearing for the security of their property.
The 2,968-metre volcano is located about 500 kilometres south-east of Jakarta. It’s most deadly eruption on record occurred in 1930 when 1,370 people were killed. At least 66 people were killed in a 1994 eruption and two people were killed in 2006.