The death toll following the eruption of the highest volcano on Indonesia’s most densely populated island of Java has risen to 13, with seven people still missing, officials said Sunday as smoldering debris and thick mud hampered search efforts.
Berg Semeru in the Lumajang district of East Java province, thick columns of more than 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) spewed into the air, and scorching gas and lava flowed down its slopes after a sudden eruption on Saturday caused by heavy rain caused. Several villages were covered with falling ash.
A thunderstorm and days of rain, which eroded the lava dome atop the Semeru of 3,676 meters (12,060 feet) and eventually caused it to collapse, caused the eruption, said Eko Budi Lelono, head of the geological survey center, said.
He said flows of scorching gas and lava traveled at least twice Saturday to 800 meters (2,624 feet) to a nearby river. People were advised to stay 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) away from the crater’s mouth, the agency said.
“Thick columns of ash have turned several villages into darkness,” said Thoriqul Haq, head of the Lumajang district. Hundreds of people were evacuated to temporary shelters or left to other safe areas, he said, adding that a power outage hampered the evacuation.
The rubble and lava mixed with rainfall formed thick mud that destroyed the main bridge connecting Lumajang and the neighboring district of Malang, as well as a smaller bridge, Haq said.
Despite an increase in activity since Wednesday, Semeru’s alert status has 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 increase it this week, Lelono said .
Abdul Muhari, spokesman for the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, said at least 13 villagers had died from serious burns and 57 had been admitted to hospital, including 16 in a critical condition with burns. He said rescuers were still searching for seven residents and sand miners along a river in the village of Curah Kobokan who had been 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 miners that heat could tumble off Semeru’s crater at any time after sensors picked up increased activity over the past week.
But some residents who fled to a government shelter near Lumajang district’s head office said authorities did not tell them about the volcano’s activities.
Department of Transportation spokeswoman Adita Irawati said her office issued a notice on Saturday to all airlines to avoid routes near the volcano. She said flight operations were still proceeding as scheduled and that authorities would continue to monitor the situation.
Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 270 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity for it sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a horseshoe-shaped series of displacement lines.