Indonesia volcano eruption death toll rises to 13
Villagers salvage their belongings in an area covered in volcanic ash at Sumber Wuluh village in Lumajang on December 5, 2021, after the Semeru volcano eruption that killed at least 13 people. (JUNI KRISWANTO / AFP)
(AFP) - Rescuers in Indonesia raced to find survivors in villages blanketed by molten ash Sunday after the eruption of Mount Semeru killed at least 13 people and left dozens injured, officials said.
The eruption of the biggest mountain on the island of Java caught locals by surprise on Saturday, sending thousands fleeing and forcing hundreds of families into makeshift shelters.
At least 11 villages of Lumajang district in East Java were coated in volcanic ash, submerging houses and vehicles, smothering livestock and leaving at least 900 evacuees seeking shelter in mosques, schools and village halls.
"We did not know it was hot mud," said Bunadi, a resident of Kampung Renteng, a village of about 3,000 people. "All of a sudden, the sky turned dark as rains and hot smoke came."
Dramatic footage showed Semeru pumping a mushroom of ash into the sky, looming over screaming residents of a nearby village as they fled.
"The death toll is now 13 people. Rescuers found more bodies," national disaster mitigation agency spokesman Abdul Muhari told AFP, without specifying the cause of death.
Two of the victims have been identified, he said in a later statement.
At least 57 people including two pregnant women were injured in the eruption, of whom 41 suffered burns and were hospitalised, the agency said in a press release.
President Joko Widodo on Sunday ordered a rapid emergency response to find victims after the scale of the disaster became clear, said state secretary Pratikno, who like many Indonesians goes by only one name.
As many as 10 trapped people were rescued from areas surrounding Lumajang, according to Muhari, as villagers and rescuers worked through the night to find anyone trapped or retrieve bodies.
Local broadcaster Kompas TV reported those rescued were local workers at a sand mining site.
But the rescues efforts have been hindered by hot ash and debris with evacuations temporarily suspended on Sunday due to hot ash clouds, Indonesia's Metro TV reported, highlighting the difficulty of the rescue operation.
There is also a risk of heavy rain causing ash sediment to form a new river of hot lava, the country's top volcanologist Surono told the station.
Most of those burnt in the immediate aftermath misunderstood the hot mud flow for floods so had stayed in their villages, Lumajang Public Order Agency spokesman Adi Hendro told AFP.
"They did not have time to run away," he said.
- 'Still alive' -
At least seven people remain missing after the eruption, Hendro said, including two who authorities believe are still alive.
"There were signs they are still alive as there were lights maybe from their cellphones," he said.
"But we cannot go there as the ground is still very hot."
Lava mixed with debris and heavy rain had already destroyed at least one bridge in Lumajang, preventing rescuers from immediately accessing the area.
But emergency services footage on Sunday showed a desolate scene in the village of Kampung Renteng with rescue workers toiling surrounded by buckled buildings and fallen trees.
"There were 10 people carried away by the mud flow," said Salim, another resident of Kampung Renteng.
"One of them was almost saved. He was told to run away but said 'I can't, who will feed my cows?'"
- Wrecked homes -
In other areas, villagers desperately tried to salvage their belongings from wrecked homes, carting mattresses and furniture on their shoulders while others carried goats in their arms.
The rescue teams were using heavy loaders to remove debris and clear roads, Muhari said.
Locals have been advised not to travel within five kilometres (3.1 miles) of Semeru's crater, as the nearby air is highly polluted and could affect vulnerable groups, he added.
Officials have sent aid to shelters, including food, tarpaulins, face masks, and body bags.
Ash spewed by the volcano travelled up to four kilometres away, Indonesia's geological agency said, reaching as far as the Indian Ocean in the southern part of Java.
The volcano's alert status has remained at its second-highest level since its previous major eruption in December 2020, which also forced thousands to flee and wrecked villages.
The head of Indonesia's centre for volcanology said it warned officials on Thursday about increased volcanic activity.
Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where the meeting of continental plates causes high volcanic and seismic activity, and has nearly 130 active volcanoes.
In late 2018, an eruption in the strait between Java and Sumatra islands caused an underwater landslide and tsunami killing more than 400 people.
© Agence France-Presse