May 15, 2006

Merapi Volcano Erupts with Gas and Ash

By Tomi Soetjipto

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia -- Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano erupted with clouds of hot gas and rained ash on surrounding areas on Monday, sending some nearby villagers who had been reluctant to leave scurrying for safety.

Gray ash covered crop fields and hundreds of rooftops in the area of Ketep, 10 km (six miles) from the base of the mountain, and many houses appeared deserted after residents evacuated.

Not everyone was gone. Some people cleaned ash off their houses and others opened shops, while commercial mini-buses continued to run.

As ash rained down on villages around the mountain in the early morning hours, schoolchildren in uniform had hurried to class, covering their noses and mouths.

The mountain "has exploded already," the head of the Merapi section at the Center of Vulcanological Research and Technology in Yogyakarta told Reuters.

He cautioned, however, that Merapi's eruption process could be gradual rather than a sudden burst, and that the massive eruption scientists fear had yet to come.

The top of Merapi was totally obscured by thick gray and white clouds, which trailed down the volcano's slopes.

"This morning it was like dusk. The village was quite dark," Mariadi, 25, said. "The ashes were pouring in for one hour," he said, adding that villagers did not panic.

"A lot of us just stayed inside the house" to avoid breathing difficulties and teary eyes outside, Mariadi said.

Shopkeeper Surti, 45, told Reuters that when she woke up "there was a pile of smoke coming (out of Merapi) and then ash started pouring in." She opened her shop anyway, saying she did not think her village was in serious danger.

Merapi, about 450 km (280 miles) east of Jakarta, is one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia, which sits in the Pacific "Ring of Fire."


During a 1994 eruption, most of the 70 casualties were caused by the outpouring of hot ash and other material following the collapse of a lava dome. The volcano killed 1,300 people in 1930.

Although a Reuters witness saw lava flowing from the side of the mountain on Monday, that was before the fresh clouds of hot gas and ash spewed from the volcano.

Ratmono Purbo, the head of the vulcanology center in Yogyakarta, said of Monday's hot clouds: "This is the biggest pile we have so far, adding that they were "billowing out of the crater for four kilometers (2.5 miles)."

Vulcanologists say as the clouds emerge from the crater their temperature can approach 1,000 degrees Celsius, although the temperature drops rapidly once they hit the open air.

"The hot clouds consist of a mix of materials such as stones, ash, sand and hot gas," said Triyani of the vulcanology center in Yogyakarta.

She added that it could not be immediately determined if the clouds were poisonous.

Indonesia raised the alert status of Merapi on Saturday to the highest level, also known as code red or danger status.

Experts have described the mountain as being in an "eruption phase" for weeks, but are looking for a substantial amount of volcanic material to be ejected straight into the sky to a substantial height to qualify it as a full eruption.

Authorities had moved more than 5,000 people living near the volcano to shelters in safe areas immediately after the new alert level, and local media said thousands more were leaving on Monday, carried in hundreds of trucks and cars.

However, like the reluctant villagers of Ketep, many have refused to desert their homes and their livelihoods. Others who have left return during the days to tend livestock, collect grass, or otherwise carry on their daily routines.

Some residents would rather rely on natural signs than scientists. They say those signals would include lightning around the Merapi's peak or animals moving down its slopes.

Officials had put the total number of residents on and close to the mountain at around 14,000 before the evacuations, with many thousands more living not far away.

Merapi is in the center of Java, Indonesia's most populated island.

Many villagers consider the volcano sacred. Every year, a traditional Javanese priest climbs to the top to make an offering.

Most Javanese, who make up the bulk of Indonesia's 220 million people, are Muslim, but many cling to a spiritual past and believe a supernatural kingdom exists on top of Merapi.

(With additional reporting by Telly Nathalia and Diyan Jari)