LUMAJANG: Rescuers in Indonesia struggled to find survivors in villages blanketed by molten ash Sunday after the eruption of Mount Semeru killed at least 14 people and left dozens injured.
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 1,300 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 that loomed over screaming residents of a nearby village as they fled.
“The number of victims who died until now is 14 people,” national disaster mitigation agency spokesman Abdul Muhari told a press conference Sunday. At least 56 people including two pregnant women were injured in the eruption, health officials said, and most suffered serious burns.
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, Muhari said, as villagers and rescuers worked through the night to find anyone alive or retrieve bodies. But the rescue efforts were hindered by hot ash and debris, with evacuations temporarily suspended on Sunday due to ash clouds, Indonesian TV reported, highlighting the difficulty of the operation. The country’s geological agency said rain is expected in the next three days that could further hinder rescue work.
There is also a risk of the rain causing ash sediment to form a new river of hot lava, the country’s top volcanologist Surono told the TV station.
Many people who sustained burns had mistaken the hot mud flow for floods so stayed in their villages, said Lumajang Public Order Agency spokesman Adi Hendro. “They did not have time to run away,” he told.
Villagers desperately tried to salvage their belongings from wrecked homes, carting mattresses and furniture on their shoulders while others carried goats in their arms. 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.