Volcano deaths on the rise

Desolate scene: A villager resting in an area covered in volcanic ash at Sumber Wuluh village in Lumajang. — AFP

The death toll from a sudden, spectacular eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Semeru has risen to 14, disaster officials said, as rescuers searched villages blanketed in molten ash for survivors.

The eruption of Java’s biggest mountain caught locals by surprise on Saturday, sending thousands fleeing its path of destruction and forcing hundreds of families into makeshift shelters.

It left at least 11 villages of Lumajang district in East Java province coated in volcanic ash, submerging houses and vehicles, smothering livestock and leaving at least 900 evacuees seeking shelter in mosques, schools and village halls.Dramatic footage showed Semeru pumping a mushroom of ash into the sky, looming ominously over screaming residents of a nearby village as they fled.

“The death toll is now 14 people. Rescuers found more bodies,” national disaster mitigation agency (BNPB) spokesman Abdul Muhari told AFP, without specifying the cause of death.

Two of the victims have been identified, he added.

At least 56 people were injured in the eruption, of whom 41 suffered burns and were hospitalised, the BNPB said in a press release.

As many as 10 trapped people were rescued from the surrounding areas in Lumajang, Muhari said, as villagers and rescuers worked through the night to find anyone trapped or retrieve bodies.

Evacuations were temporarily suspended yesterday due to hot ash clouds, Indonesia’s Metro TV reported. There is also a risk of heavy rain causing ash sediment to form a new river of hot lava.

“Thick columns of ash have turned several villages to darkness,” said Lumajang district head Thoriqul Haq. Several hundred people were moved to temporary shelters or left for other safe areas, he said, adding that a power blackout hampered the evacuation.

The debris and lava mixed with rainfall formed thick mud that destroyed the main bridge connecting Lumajang and the neighbouring district of Malang, as well as a smaller bridge, Thoriqul said.

Despite an increase in activity since Wednesday, Semeru’s alert status had remained at the third highest of four levels since it began erupting last year, and Indonesia’s Volcanology Center for Geological Hazard Mitigation did not raise it this week, Lelono said.

But emergency service footage yesterday showed a desolate scene in one village swallowed by the eruption, with roofs of houses protruding from a coat of mud.

In others, villagers tried to salvage their belongings from wrecked homes. Some held mattresses and furniture on their shoulders while others carried goats alive in their arms. — Agencies

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