Continuing Story: Indonesia Volcano Erupts, Tsunami Deaths Rising

Mount Merapi Volcano Erupts

The Mount Merapi volcano in Indonesia erupted at least three times Tuesday, forcing thousands of nearby residents to flee. Indonesian media reported that 15 people were killed, including some journalists who were staying in a gatehouse to get close to the volcano. CNN could not independently verify those reports. Mount Merapi, which looms on the horizon north of the major city of Yogyakarta, is one of Indonesia’s most active volcanoes and lies in a summit elevation of nearly 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). Scientists warn the pressure building up beneath the volcano’s lava dome could lead to one of the most powerful blasts in years.

Thousands of residents living on the volcano’s slopes have been evacuated. However, a further 13,000 people need to be evacuated from within a 10-mile (16 kilometre) radius of the volcano, officials say. It is thought that 5,000 people live on or near the volcano.

Christian Awui, a rescuer at the scene, told CNN that the first thing that residents heard were sirens from an early warning system announcing the coming eruptions. “There was panic,” he said. “You could hear the rumbles of the volcano.” People ran to a refugee camp about 4 kilometres (2.5 miles) away. Because it was still dark, it was hard to tell how the eruptions compared with the previous ones, Awui said.

Television footage showed thousands of people fleeing the area, some covered in the volcano’s white ash which rained from the sky.

The head of one village near the volcano said that many residents were stranded. He said rain loaded with volcanic ash had reduced visibility to just 5 metres (16 feet).

“We are evacuating to the village square, around 14 kilometres from Mount Merapi slope. Some of the villagers are still stranded but we received text messages from them, saying that they are OK,” Heri Suprapto told the BBC. Suprapto told the BBC’s Indonesia service that 372 “very weak” people from three villages had been evacuated. “Transportation has also been prepared for villagers who are in good health whenever evacuation needs to be done. Preparations are also underway to evacuate individuals by using motorbike and small cars.” (BBC)

A doctor at a nearby hospital said that at least six people had been badly burnt by the hot air rushing from the volcano, Reuters reports. One eyewitness said he saw people with bad burns being taken away on stretchers, the agency reports. There were also reports that a three-month-old baby had died from breathing difficulties after inhaling volcanic material.

Some nongovernmental relief agencies were poised to offer immediate help. One of them was World Vision Indonesia, a Christian relief and development agency. “Right now, our biggest concern is the children,” said Fadli Usman, World Vision Indonesia’s rapid assessment team leader. “Children are always forgotten in the early moments of a disaster like this. My first task will be to assess the needs of the children and their families in the evacuation centers so our team can begin to help them.” (CNN)

Usman said about 1,500 people – mostly women and children – had found refuge at a four-building shelter about 7 miles (12 kilometres) from the volcano. The evacuees, he said, are worried about the men who stayed behind to guard their homes and fields on the mountain. A dusting of ash covered motorbikes and cars at the shelter parking lot, the relief worker said. The heavy ash fallout also obscured any view of the mountain from his location, he said. Usman had reported earlier that traffic was heavy as people left the region near the mountain. The traffic was not chaotic, he said, and the road was open and under control.

On Monday, officials monitoring the volcano raised the alert for Mount Merapi to the highest possible level. Since then, more than 600 volcanic earthquakes have been recorded around the mountain.

“We heard three explosions around 6:00 p.m. spewing volcanic material as high as 1.5 kilometres (one mile) and sending heat clouds down the slopes,” government volcanologist Surono, who goes by one name, told AFP. He warned that pressure was building up behind a lava dome near the crater. “We hope it will release slowly,” he said. “Otherwise, we’re looking at a potentially huge eruption, bigger than anything we’ve seen in years.” (BBC) He said this eruption was more powerful than the volcano’s last blast in 2006, which killed two people. In 1930, another powerful eruption wiped out 13 villages, killing more than 1,000 people.

Pronco Sumatro, 65, who arrived at a makeshift camp with her two grandchildren, said her children had stayed behind to look after their crops. “I just have to follow orders to take shelter here for safety, even though I’d rather like to stay at home,” the Associated Press news agency quoted her as saying.

BBC Indonesia correspondent Karishma Vaswani says that for many Javanese, Mt. Merapi is a sacred site. Officials say some of the villagers are waiting for the local “gatekeeper” of the volcano to tell them that the increased activity at Mt. Merapi is dangerous. Described as a medicine man, he is believed by many villagers to have a spiritual connection to the volcano. He has reportedly said he will not leave yet, but is urging villagers to make their way to government shelters, Vaswani said. Indonesia’s vice-president and health minister are preparing to travel to the affected region on Wednesday.

Tsunami

At least 112 people were killed and 502 others were missing after a 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck off Sumatra on Monday and triggered a tsunami, Indonesian officials said Tuesday. The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre said the quake generated a “significant” tsunami. Some of the missing may include people who are unaccounted for after fleeing to higher ground, said Henri Dori Satoko, the head of the Mentawai Islands parliament. Although communication with remote areas was difficult, some witnesses in West Sumatra reported seeing a wave 6 metres (nearly 20 feet) high. Other reports described the tsunami as being about 3 metres (almost 10 feet) high. Satoko said at least one village with a population of about 200 people was swept away, with only 40 people recovered.

The numbers of the dead and injured were in flux because information was trickling in from remote parts of Indonesia, a country made up of myriad islands. The area believed hardest-hit was the Mentawai Islands, a popular surfing destination. In particular, Pagai Island was thought to have been affected, said Ita Balanda, a program manager for World Vision in Padang.

The quake struck at 9:42 p.m. Monday, triggering a tsunami warning that was later lifted when sea level readings indicated the threat had diminished or was over for most areas. Its epicentre was 240 kilometres (150 miles) south of Padang, at a depth of 20.6 kilometres (12.8 miles), according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The magnitude was revised upward from a preliminary magnitude of 7.5.

“Ten villages have been swept away by the tsunami,” National Disaster Management Agency spokesman Agolo Suparto told AFP.

Most buildings in the South Pagai coastal village of Betu Monga were destroyed, Hardimansyah, an official with the regional branch of the Department of Fisheries, told the Reuters news agency by phone. “Of the 200 people living in that village, only 40 have been found – 160 are still missing, mostly women and children,” he said. “We have people reporting to the security post here that they could not hold on to their children, that they were swept away. A lot of people are crying.” (BBC)

“Big, slow, long earthquake last night, and a couple tremblers afterward,” WavePark Mentawai Surfing Resort said on its website. “Turns out it was a 7.5 about 70 [kilometres] south of us.” The resort said it saw “about six waves on the beach after about 20 minutes” but none was higher than usually seen during high tide. “No damage here, but reports of damage to other resorts and charter boats further south,” the posting said. (CNN) “The local residents in the Mentawai Islands reported seeing a tsunami as high as 3 metres [that] reached as far as 600 metres inland,” said Mujiharto of the Indonesian Health Ministry.

The Perfect Wave, a surf travel company that said it had 32 clients in the area, also described the wave in a statement as about 3 metres (10 feet) high, and said it washed through a bay where two boats with clients on board were docked. One boat hit the other, which caught on fire, and all the guests jumped overboard. Nine guests and five crew members were washed into the jungle and took more than an hour to make their way to safety, the company said. All those aboard were picked up by a third boat and were safe “apart from suffering some smoke inhalation and minor scratches,” the statement said. (CNN) A surf guide aboard the third boat reported “there was a lot of debris floating in the water including bar stools and other pieces of furniture from Macaronis Resort,” the company said. “No news on the state of the village at Silabu.” (CNN) The resort, where six clients were staying, is “all but gone,” the statement said. The Perfect Wave said it was working to obtain replacement passports for its clients and organize flights home.

“It’s very difficult to access the coast right now because the sea is quite bad,” said Gilles Bordessoule, owner of the Siloinak Surf Resort. (CNN) He said his property was unaffected, but his staff was attempting to help the Macaronis Resort, which was “completely destroyed” along with two others. Two of the Macaronis guests are missing, he said. He said the only means of communications with the affected area is by satellite phone, which is how he found out about the resort and received some other information. The fate of the other 130 kilometres (80 miles) of coastline is unknown, he said. Brodessoule said he had been in contact with authorities and residents of the area and was told between 150 and 180 people are dead and body bags are needed.

Waves reached 3 metres (10 feet) high and the water swept inland as far as 600 metres on South Pagai island, said Mudjiharto, the head of Indonesia’s health ministry crisis centre. He said 200 body bags were being sent to the region in case they were needed.

A group of Australians caught up in the tsunami have described how their boat was destroyed by a wall of water. Captain Rick Hallet told Australian media that his boat was anchored off the shore when the waves came. “We felt a bit of a shake underneath the boat… then within several minutes, we heard an almighty roar,” he said. “I immediately thought of a tsunami and looked out to sea and that’s when we saw the wall of white water coming at us,” he said. (BBC) The wave brought another boat crashing into them and sparked a fire, forcing them to jump in the sea. Some of those on board were swept up to 200 metres inland by the wave, he said.

Meanwhile, the crew of another Australian boat, the Southern Cross – which went missing for nearly 24 hours after the quake – have been found safe and well, Australian media reported. The nine Australians and a Japanese man on board had lost their radio signal but made contact with their tour company late on Tuesday, Australia’s APP News Agency reported.

Large waves were keeping rescue crews and aid workers from reaching the area. An Indonesian Red Cross assessment team had set out for the island but was forced to turn back because of high seas and debris in the water, said Gayat, a spokeswoman for the agency, who like many Indonesians only uses one name. She said the team will try again Wednesday morning. The trip takes 10 hours, even under good conditions, Balanda said. Balanda said her organization is working with the Indonesian government and the United Nations to figure out how to get to the hardest-hit area. Indonesian government resources have been sent to central Java, where Mount Merapi was erupting, she said, but said her group hopes one or two helicopters will be freed up to help with the quake and tsunami response. She said she is receiving information from a local nongovernmental organization as well as others in the region.

The city of Padang and the Mentawai Islands are the meeting place of two tectonic plates, making them vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis.

On December 26, 2004, a 9.1-magnitude earthquake struck off northern Sumatra. A tsunami generated by that earthquake killed more than 225,000 people in 4 countries – mainly India, Indonesia, Maldives, Sri Lanka and Thailand. The Indonesian region of Banda Aceh was hard-hit: About 150,000 died there.

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