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Death toll from Indonesian volcano climbs to 92

A man walks on a street covered with volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Merapi in Muntilan, Indonesia. More than 75,000 people living near Merapi’s slopes have been evacuated.

Associated Press

A man walks on a street covered with volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Merapi in Muntilan, Indonesia. More than 75,000 people living near Merapi’s slopes have been evacuated.

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia — A deadly surge of blistering gases cascaded down the slopes of Indonesia's most volatile volcano today, incinerating houses in one mountainside village and more than doubling the number of people killed in just over a week to 92.

Forty-eight bodies were brought to a morgue at a nearby hospital, which was struggling to cope with victims. At least 66 people were injured, many of them critically with burns.

Mount Merapi's booming explosion just after midnight triggered a panicked evacuation. Men with ash-covered faces streamed down Mount Merapi on motorcycles followed by truckloads of women and children, many crying.

Officials barked out orders on bullhorns as rocks and debris rained from the sky.

Soldiers joined rescue operations in Bronggang, the torched village 9 miles from the crater, and — until today — just on the perimeter of the "safe zone."

They loaded charred corpses into vehicles and carried away the injured on stretchers.

"We're totally overwhelmed here!" said Heru Nugroho, a spokesman at the Sardjito hospital, as the burn victims arrived.

Mount Merapi, which means "Fire Mountain," has erupted many times in the last century, often with deadly results.

The greatest danger is always pyroclastic flows.

Such clouds can reach temperatures of up to 1,400 degrees, while racing down the slopes at speeds of up to 60 mph.

Activity at the mountain forced an airport in nearby Yogyakarta to close. Heavy ash and volcanic debris has been known to affect visibility and clog engines. Officials insisted, however, that a Qantas jetliner forced to make an emergency landing after one of its four engines failed over Batam, an island 800 miles to the west, was unrelated.

Subandrio, a state volcanologist, meanwhile, said Mount Merapi's "danger zone" was extended by 3 miles to 12 miles from the crater's mouth after the new eruption. Even scientists from Merapi's monitoring station were told they had to pack up and move down the mountain.

Despite earlier predictions by scientists that dozens of big explosions that followed Merapi's initial Oct. 26 blast would ease pressure building up behind a magma dome, eruptions have been intensifying.

"I've never seen it act like this," said Surono, a state expert on volcanos, who has observed Merapi for more than 15 years. "We don't know what to expect."

More than 75,000 people living along its fertile slopes have been evacuated to crowded emergency shelters, many by force. Some return to their villages during lulls in activity, however, to tend to their livestock.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanos because it sits along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the Pacific Ocean.

The volcano's initial blast occurred less than 24 hours after a towering tsunami slammed into the remote Mentawai islands on the western end of the country, sweeping entire villages to sea and killing at least 428 people.

There, too, thousands of people were displaced, many living in government camps.

Death toll from Indonesian volcano climbs to 92 11/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 11:56pm]
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