Indonesian volcano unleashes new powerful eruption

Eruption is accompanied by several deafening explosions; Indonesia straddles series of fault lines and volcanoes known as the Pacific "Ring of Fire"; eruption follows 18-foot tsunami that swept entire villages to sea.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
November 1, 2010 13:14
3 minute read.
Volcano shooting out smoke

Volcano Indonesia again 311 AP. (photo credit: AP)

 
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Indonesia — Indonesia's most volatile volcano — one of 22 that have been increasingly active — spewed searing clouds of gas and debris for hours Monday in its most powerful eruption in a deadly week. No new casualties were immediately reported.

Hundreds of miles (kilometers) to the west, a break in the weather helped rescuers get aid to victims of an 18-foot (six meter) -high tsunami that slammed into several remote islands, sweeping entire villages to sea.

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The twin disasters, unfolding simultaneously on opposite ends of the seismically active country, have killed nearly 500 people and severely tested the government's emergency response network. In both events, the military has been called in to help.

Mount Merapi, one of nearly 200 active volcanoes in Indonesia, has erupted many times in the last two centuries, often with deadly results. In 1994, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were incinerated, leaving up to 1,300 dead. The latest eruption has killed 38 since it started a week ago.

Almost all villagers living along Mount Merapi's fertile slopes have been evacuated to crowded refugee camps well away from the base, some screaming and crying as they were carried away by camouflaged soldiers.

During lulls in activity, some have returned to their homes to check on livestock and crops, but there were no indications any had been hurt in Monday's blast, said Waluyo Rahardjo, a National Search and Rescue Agency official.

The eruption was accompanied by several deafening explosions.

More than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) to the west, meanwhile, a C-130 transport plane, six helicopters and four motorized boats were ferrying aid to the most distant corners of the Mentawai Islands, where last week's tsunami destroyed hundreds of homes, schools, churches and mosques.

A military chopper had evacuated badly injured survivors Sunday who had languished in an overwhelmed hospital with only paracetamol to ease their pain, said Ade Edward, a disaster management official. Among them was a baby girl born in a shelter after the tsunami and a 12-year-old girl with a life-threatening chest wound.

Relief efforts were halted Saturday by stormy weather and rough seas.

"We're really glad to finally see the relief workers, doctors and rescue teams able to reach devastated areas," Edward said, adding that two navy ships arrived with many more police and soldiers deployed to speed up relief efforts.

The tsunami death toll had reached 450 by Monday, said Nelis Zuliastri from the National Disaster Management Agency, with the number of missing now less than 100.

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 line in the earth's surface that hatched the 7.7 magnitude quake and the wave that followed one week ago — and also the 2004 tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries — is the meeting point of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates that have been pushing against and under each other for millions of years, causing huge stresses to build up. It runs the length of the west coast of Sumatra island.

There is some debate as to whether seismic activity like the 7.7-magnitude quake that spawned last week's tsunami can trigger volcanic eruptions. But with Merapi's eruption 24 hours after that tremor, the government wasn't taking chances.

It has raised alert levels of 21 other volcanoes — many of which have shown an increase in activity, rumbling and belching out heavy black ash — to the second- and third- highest levels in the last two months, mostly as a precaution, said Syamsul Rizal, a state volcanologist.

Indonesia has several volcanos smoldering at any given time, but another government volcanologist Gede Swantika said there are normally only five to 10 on the third-highest alert level, indicating an increase in seismic and other activity, and none at all at the second-highest, signifying an eruption is possible within two weeks. He said monitors noticed more volcanos were exhibiting seismic activity starting September 2.

"We can say this is quite extraordinary, about 20 at the same time," Swantika said. "We have to keep an eye on those mountains. ... But I cannot say or predict which will erupt. What we can do is monitor patterns."

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