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122 dead as Indonesia volcano burns whole villages

An Indonesian soldier and rescuers run after an eruption of Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Friday.  The eruption released 1,765 million cubic feet of volcanic material, making it the biggest in at least a century. 


Associated Press

An Indonesian soldier and rescuers run after an eruption of Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Friday. The eruption released 1,765 million cubic feet of volcanic material, making it the biggest in at least a century.

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia — A surge of searing gas raced down the sides of Mount Merapi on Friday, smothering houses, cattle and villagers in its path. The death toll after the volcano's largest eruption in a century soared to 122.

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The worst hit village of Bronggang lay 9 miles from the fiery crater, just on the perimeter of the government-delineated "danger zone." Crumpled roofs, charred carcasses of cattle and broken furniture, all layered in white ash and soot, dotted the smoldering landscape.

The zone has since been expanded to a ring 12 miles from the peak, bringing it to the edge of the royal capital of Yogyakarta, since put on its highest alert.

Sri Sucirathasri said her family had stayed in their Bronggang home Thursday night because they weren't told to leave.

They awoke in the dark as the mountain let out thunderous claps and tried to outrun the flows, which reached speeds of 60 mph, on a motorbike. Her mother, father and 12-year-old sister, Prisca, left first, but with gray ash blocking out light, they mistakenly drove into 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 became 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 are burned a shiny ebony, her features nearly melted away.

Their mother is still missing. Their father, whose feet and ankles are burned, is being treated in another ward.

"I don't know what to say," she whispers when asked if she blames 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 they don't know what to expect.

Scientists can study the patterns of volcanoes, but their eruptions are essentially unpredictable.

Bursts of hot clouds occasionally interrupted aid efforts, with rescuers screaming, "Watch out! Hot cloud!"

The eruption released 1,765 million cubic feet of volcanic material, making it "the biggest in at least a century," said state volcanologist Gede Swantika as plumes of smoke continued to shoot up more than 30,000 feet.

Soldiers pulled at least 78 bodies from homes and streets blanketed by ash up to a foot deep Friday, raising the overall toll to 122, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.

With bodies found in front of houses and in streets, it appeared that many 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 — with clothes, blankets and even mattresses fused to their skin by the 1,400-degree heat — were carried away on stretchers after the first big explosion just before midnight.

More than 150 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.

Despite being at the foot of Indonesia's deadliest volcano, Yogyakarta has only one burn unit — at Sardjito. And it has only 10 beds, so 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.

122 dead as Indonesia volcano burns whole villages 11/05/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 6, 2010 12:10am]

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