May 16, 2006

Lava Flows Down Sides of Indonesian Volcano

By Tomi Soetjipto

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia -- Lava streamed down the sides of Indonesia's mystical Mount Merapi on Tuesday, but the clouds of hot gas belching from the top were substantially smaller than the day before.

Around the base of the mountain that some Indonesians consider sacred, thousands of residents went about their daily lives such as milking cows and collecting grass for feed despite warnings a major eruption could come anytime.

Vulcanologists said Merapi was in its final eruption phase and feared the possible collapse of a swelling lava dome at the top, which could trigger more massive and dangerous clouds and sprays of lava.

During its last eruption in 1994, most of the 70 deaths were caused by the outpouring of hot ash and other material following the collapse of a lava dome.

When, or if, this might happen again was uncertain, said Triyani, an official at the Center of Vulcanological Research and Technology Development in Yogyakarta near Mount Merapi.

"We cannot predict, because this mountain is unique," she said of the nearly 3,000 meter (10,000 feet) conical-shaped volcano in the center of Java island.

On Tuesday, lava flows could be seen in the pre-dawn hours, although they did not threaten populated areas, while the clouds around the summit looked to be about half the size of Monday's, Reuters witnesses said.

No ash falls were reported, unlike Monday when gray ash coated fields and houses near the mountain.

"By 6 a.m. this morning there were 11 hot clouds" that had erupted from the mountain, said Triyani.

She told Reuters by telephone that the biggest was two kilometres (1.2 miles) in length down the side of the mountain, while on Monday the cloud length had reached four kilometres.

In 1994, the clouds stretched 6 km before a deadly rain of material started falling. The volcano killed 1,300 people in 1930.


President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is scheduled to fly to the near-by city of Solo on Tuesday. Solo lies around 50 km (30 miles) from Merapi.

Vulcanologists say as the clouds emerge from the crater their temperature can approach 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 degrees Fahrenheit), although the temperature drops rapidly once the gas shoots up into the air.

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

Indonesia raised the alert status of Merapi on Saturday to the highest level, known as code red or danger status, and moved more than 5,000 people living near the volcano to shelters.

But many are reluctant to desert their homes and livelihoods and some who have left return during the day to tend livestock, collect grass, or otherwise carry on their daily routines.

"Today there's only a small cloud, so it is okay. I'm not too afraid," said Lestari, 36, as she emerged from a restricted-access area around the mountain, holding a sickle while walking back to a refugee camp.

She said she woke up at four in the morning to cut grass and feed it to her cows.

Slamet Suparno, 43, standing in a rice paddy about eight kilometres from Merapi's crater, told Reuters: "Everything is fine here. My wife is still at home. I'm just going to start working."

He said he was not afraid of the smoke from the volcano because so far it had not moved toward his village.

Some villagers consider the volcano sacred. 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)