Huge volcanic blast spurs more Indonesians to flee

SLAMET RIYADI - Associated Press

Searing gas and molten lava poured from Indonesia's deadly volcano Wednesday in an explosion three times as powerful as last week's devastating blast, chasing people from villages and emergency shelters along its slopes.

After more than a week of continual eruptions, and warnings that pressure inside Mount Merapi may still be building, the province warned it was running out of money to help more than 70,000 people forced from their homes.

Soldiers loaded women and crying children into trucks while rocks and debris rained from the sky. Several abandoned homes were set ablaze and the carcasses of incinerated cattle littered the mountain's scorched slopes.

No new casualties were reported after Wednesday's fiery explosion, which dusted cars, trees and roads in towns up to 80 miles (130 kilometers) away in gray ash.

"This is an extraordinary eruption," said Surono, a state volcanologist who had earlier said energy building up behind a magma dome in the crater appeared to be easing.

He said the blast had triple the force of the first eruption on Oct. 26.

"We have no idea what's happening," he said, as he watched the bobbing needle of a seismograph machine. "It looks like we may be entering an even worse stage now."

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

Thirty-eight people have died since it burst back to life just over a week ago. In 1994, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were torched, leaving up to 1,300 dead.

Still, as with other volcanoes in this seismically charged country, tens of thousands call its fertile slopes home. Most now are packed in crowded government camps well away from the base.

Djarot Nugroho, the head of Central Java's disaster management agency, said money to buy instant noodles, clean water, medicine and other supplies would run out within five days unless the Indonesian government declares a national disaster, bringing in much-needed federal funds.

There have been more than a dozen strong eruptions at Merapi in the last week — including another one earlier Wednesday — and thousands of volcanic tremors and ash bursts.

The danger zone was widened from six miles to nine miles (10 to 15 kilometers) from the peak because of the heightened threat.

"I (didn't) think of anything else except to save my wife and son. We left my house and everything," said Tentrem Wahono, 50, who fled with his family on a motorbike from their village of Kaliurang, located about six miles from the crater.

"We were racing with the explosive sounds as the searing ash chased us from behind," he said.

Soldiers and police blocked all roads leading up the 9,700-foot (3,000-meter) mountain, chasing away curious onlookers and television crews and reporters.

Wednesday's eruption, which occurred during a downpour, raised Merapi to "crisis" status, said Andi Arief, a staffer in the presidential office dealing with the disaster.

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.

As a reminder of that, a 6.0-magnitude quake hit waters off the eastern province of Papua on Wednesday evening, rattling several villages but causing no known damage or casualties. At the time, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was wrapping up a visit to Papua New Guinea — on the same island as Papua province. She was in the capital, about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) east of the epicenter, and no shaking was felt there.

The volcano's initial Oct. 26 blast occurred less than 24 hours after a towering tsunami slammed into remote 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.

In both cases, relief operations are expected to take weeks, possibly months.

Helicopters and boats were delivering aid to tsunami survivors in the most distant Mentawai islands, more than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) west of Merapi.

The islands, popular among surfers, lie almost directly over the fault that spawned the 2004 Indian Ocean monster quake and wave.

There has been talk in recent days about relocating villagers away from vulnerable coastlines.

"I'm all for it," said Regen, who lives on Pagai Utara island and goes by one name. "We're all terrified now, especially at night, and wouldn't mind moving further inland."

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Associated Press writers Irwan Firdaus, Ali Kotarumalos and Niniek Karmini contributed to this report from Jakarta.