A week after the first victims were buried in a mass grave, Mount Merapi continues to wreak disaster in central Java. 32 Indonesians died in the volcano’s first eruption, but the death toll has now risen to over 100 after the latest eruption on Thursday night.
Some of the victims had returned to their homes to attend livestock, while others believed they were at a safe distance. Caught off-guard by Thursday’s eruption, many injured streamed into the local hospital, their ash-covered faces giving them the appearance of ghosts. A hospital spokesman admitted “we’re totally overwhelmed here”. Medics have been attending 66 people, some of them critically ill with burns. Children exposed to the ash are also being treated for burning throats, respiratory problems and conjunctivitis.
Blackened bodies are being brought to the hospital. Many of the dead are believed to be from the village of Argomulvo, which lies 18 kilometres from the crater of Mount Merapi. One rescue worker reported finding a mother, child and father dead in their beds, struck by the hot ash as they slept. A doctor from the police identification unit has warned the death toll could rise further as the search for victims continues.
One volcanologist in the region reported that heat clouds from Thursday’s eruption reached as far as 13 kilometres down some slopes and the explosion was audible 20 kilometres away. And scientists say there will be more activity in the coming weeks, though it is impossible to predict the volcano’s behaviour with any degree of accuracy. In response, the Indonesian authorities have widened the “danger zone” still further, from 15 to 20 kilometres from the crater.
According to the Welfare Minister, over 150,000 residents have now been evacuated from the region. The football stadium in Yogyakarta has been turned into a reception centre for evacuees and already 5,000 people have arrived there. A volunteer from the Red Cross, there with other non-governmental organisations to provide food, water and medical attention, said another 5,000 displaced people were expected during the course of the day. Even in Yogyakarta, the effects of the volcano can be felt. A smog of ash hangs over the city and everywhere cars and buildings are covered by a fine dust. The local airport is now closed.
The President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has declared the situation a national disaster and will visit the region. He has promised the government will pay for any livestock killed by the volcano in an attempt to persuade villagers not to return to land inside the restricted zone. The President emphasised the area must remain on high alert because “there is no sign Merapi is abating.”