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November 05, 2010 (KATAKAMI / THE JAKARTA POST / AP) — A deadly surge of blistering gases cascaded down the slopes of Indonesia’s most volatile volcano, torching houses in one mountainside village and nearly doubling the number of people killed in just over a week to 79.
Thirty-five bodies were brought to a morgue at a nearby hospital, which was struggling to cope with victims. More than 65 people were injured, many of them critically.
Mount Merapi, which means “Fire Mountain,” has erupted many times in the last century, often with deadly results.
Though more than 75,000 people living along its fertile slopes have been evacuated to crowded emergency shelters, many by force, others are reluctant to leave their precious livestock. Some return to their villages during lulls in activity to bring fresh grass.
It was not immediately clear why Bronggang, a village nine miles (15 kilometers) from the crater, had not been evacuated when the searing ash, gases and rock fragments hit just before midnight.
“We’re totally overwhelmed here!” said Heru Nogroho, a spokesman at the Sardjito hospital, as soldiers continued to bring in victims, many with severe burns.
Despite earlier predictions by scientists that dozens of big explosions that followed Merapi’s initial Oct. 26 blast would ease pressure building up behind a magma dome, eruptions appeared to be intensifying.
“I’ve never seen it act like this,” said Surono, a state expert on volcanos, who has observed Merapi for more than 15 years. “We don’t know what to expect.”
Towering clouds of ash shot from the crater with a thunder-like roar on Thursday morning, sending soot 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) into the air and dusting towns up to 150 miles (250 kilometers) away.
Just before midnight, Merapi erupted again, sending pyroclastic flows down the mountain.
Such clouds can reach temperatures of up to 1,400 degree Fahrenheit (750 degree Celsius), while racing down the slopes at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour).
Waluyo Raharjo, a search and rescue official, was on the scene as bodies were pulled from charred homes and loaded into vehicles, bringing them to the hospital morgue.
Activity at the mountain forced an airport in nearby Yogyakarta to close Friday.
Subandrio, a state volcanologist, meanwhile, said Mount Merapi’s “danger zone” was widened to 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the crater’s mouth.
It was the second time in as many days the area was expanded.
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 Ocean.
The volcano’s initial blast occurred less than 24 hours after a towering tsunami slammed into the remote Mentawai 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.