At least 13 people have been killed in the eruption of the highest volcano in Java, Indonesia’s most densely populated island, officials said on Sunday.
Seven people were still missing as smoking debris and thick mud hampered search efforts.
Heavy rains on Saturday triggered a sudden eruption of Mount Semeru in the province of East Java, spewing thick columns of ash more than 12,000 meters into the sky as hot gas and lava tumbled down its slopes.
“Thick pillars of ash plunged several villages into darkness,” said Lumajang district chief Thoriqul Haq. Several hundred people were moved to temporary shelters or moved to other safe areas, he said, adding that a power outage hampered the evacuation.
Debris and lava mixed with the precipitation formed thick mud that destroyed the main bridge connecting Lumajang and neighboring Malang District, as well as a smaller bridge, Haq said.
Questions about the warning system
Despite an increase in activity since Wednesday, Semeru’s alert status had remained at the third-highest of four levels since its eruption began last year.
National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesperson Abdul Muhari said at least 13 villagers died from severe burns and 57 were hospitalized, 16 of them in critical condition with burns.
He said rescuers were still looking for seven residents and sand miners along a river in the village of Curah Kobokan who were missing.
Entire houses in the village were damaged by volcanic debris and more than 900 people fled to temporary government shelters, Muhari said.
Liswanto, the head of the Semeru monitoring station, said his office informed the community and miners that hot ash could fall from Semeru Crater at any time, after sensors detected increased activity during the last week.
But some residents who fled to a government shelter near the Lumajang district headquarters said authorities had not provided them with any information about the volcano’s activities.
“Suddenly everything got dark, the bright afternoon turned into night. A roar and heat forced us to run to the mosque,” said Fatmah, a resident who fled to the shelter. Curah Kobokan, about 5 kilometers from the crater. “It was a much stronger rash than in January.”
Airlines advised to avoid roads near the volcano
Transportation Ministry spokeswoman Adita Irawati said her office issued a notice on Saturday asking all airlines to avoid routes near the volcano. She said flight operations are still going as planned and authorities will continue to monitor the situation.
TV reports have shown people screaming and running under a huge cloud of ash, their faces wet from rain mixed with volcanic dust. The last Semeru eruption in January claimed no casualties.
Indonesia, an archipelago of over 270 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity as it lies along the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, a series of fault lines in horseshoe shape.