Mount Merapi erupted Tuesday afternoon, spewing hot ash down its slopes and forcing residents to finally flee, reluctantly, to safety.
The volcano erupted just hours after Vice President Boediono visited its observation station and talked with evacuees, mostly elderly people and children, who have sheltered in makeshift tents since the volcano hit top alert status on Monday.
Boediono, who was flanked by a number of ministers, warned of the possibility of a bigger eruption than the one in 2006.
“The government fully supports the disaster mitigation programs of the Sleman regency administration and the rehabilitation program in the event of an eruption,” said Boediono, who also asked residents to ask the volcano’s guardian Mbah Maridjan to pray for their safety.
Tuesday’s eruption claimed the life of a three-month-old baby, who passed away after experiencing respiratory problems. Two more Sleman residents reportedly died in the disaster.
Muntilan General Hospital director Sasongko told journalists Tuesday evening that the baby died on the way to hospital. “We have tried our best, it was just too severe a problem,” he said. as quoted by kompas.com.
The hospital was treating 10 people for breathing problems.
Adi Mulyanto, an emergency doctor at the Panti Nugroho Hospital in Sleman, told Reuters that at least six people had been badly burned by hot air bursting out of the volcano.
“Three of these people have been rushed to hospital with burns to more than 80 percent of their bodies,” he said.
Since Monday, the authorities had been trying to evacuate more than 11,000 villagers from the slopes of the volcano.
“Only the women, the elderly and children have evacuated to shelters. The men and the youths are still in the villages. If all of them are here, who will feed the livestock,” said Tumiyati, a resident from Kaliurang in Sleman, Yogyakarta.
Scientists have warned that the pressure building beneath the dome could presage one of the biggest eruptions in years at Merapi.
Since the volcano’s alert status was raised Monday, its volcanic activity has continued to increase.
Based on observations conducted by the Yogyakarta Volcanic Technology Development and Research (BPPTK), at least 7.5 million cubic meters of volcanic material is currently retained on the peak of the volcano and could collapse inwards and be released by an eruption.
Surono, head of the Volcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation Center (PVMBG), which currently has moved its base from Bandung to the Yogyakarta BPPTK office, said the 7.5 million cubic meters of volcanic material was the remnants from the 1911 eruption and prone to collapse under magma pressure.
“If the 1911 dome is pushed by magma, the domes created during the 1997 and 2006 eruptions will also collapse,” said Surono.
Merapi last erupted four years ago, when it sent an avalanche of hot gases and rock fragments racing down the mountain killing two people. Previous eruptions in 1994 killed 60 people, while 1,300 people died in an eruption in 1930.
Indonesia is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity due to its location on the geological feature known as Pacific Ring of Fire, a series of fault lines stretching from the western hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia. Indonesia has more than 120 active volcanoes to monitor located among more than 17,000 islands.