At least 13 people were killed following the eruption of the highest volcano on Indonesia’s most densely populated island of Java, officials said on Sunday.
Seven people were still missing as smouldering debris and thick mud hampered search efforts.
Heavy rains triggered a sudden eruption of Mount Semeru in East Java province on Saturday, spewing thick columns of ash more than 12,000 meters into the sky as searing gas and lava flew down its slopes.
“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, Haq said.
Questions over warning system
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.
National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesperson Abdul Muhari said at least 13 villagers died from severe burns and 57 were hospitalised, including 16 in critical condition with burn injuries.
He said rescuers were still searching for seven residents and sand miners along a river in Curah Kobokan village who were reported 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 Semeru’s monitoring post, said his office had informed the community and the miners that hot ash could tumble down from Semeru’s crater at any time, after sensors picked up increased activity in the past week.
But some residents who fled to a government shelter near Lumajang district’s head office said authorities did not convey any information to them about the volcano’s activities.
“Suddenly everything went dark, the bright afternoon turned into night. A rumbling sound and heat forced us to run to the mosque,” said Fatmah, a resident who fled to the shelter from Curah Kobokan, about 5 kilometres from the crater. “It was a far stronger eruption than in January.”
Airlines advised to avoid routes near volcano
Transportation Ministry spokesperson Adita Irawati said her office issued a notice on Saturday for all airlines to avoid routes near the volcano. She said flight operations are still running as scheduled and that authorities will continue to monitor the situation.
Television reports showed people screaming and running under a huge ash cloud, their faces wet from rain mixed with volcanic dust. The last time Semeru erupted, in January, there were no casualties.
Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 270 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity because it sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a horseshoe-shaped series of fault lines.