Death toll rises to 14 after volcano erupts on Indonesia’s Java island

Some 1,300 evacuated as search teams look for victims through deep ash layers

Mount Semeru spews thick columns of ash more than 12,000 metres into the sky over Java, Indonesia's most densely populated island. Video: Reuters


The death toll following the eruption of the highest volcano on Indonesia’s most densely populated island of Java rose to 14 on Sunday as search teams looked for victims in a landscape covered in deep layers of ash.

Mount Semeru in Lumajang district in East Java province spewed thick columns of ash more than 12,000 metres (40,000ft) into the sky, and searing gas and lava flowed down its slopes after a sudden eruption on Saturday triggered by heavy rains.

Several villages were blanketed with falling ash. Fifty-six people were injured and 1,300 have been evacuated. Authorities said most injuries were burns.

A thunderstorm and days of rain, which eroded and finally collapsed the lava dome atop the 3,676-metre (12,060ft) Semeru, triggered the eruption, said Eko Budi Lelono, who heads the geological survey centre.

He said flows of searing gas and lava travelled up to 800 metres (2,624ft) to a nearby river at least twice on Saturday.

People were advised to stay 5km from the crater’s mouth, the agency said.

“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, Mr Haq said.

A truck buried under volcanic ash from the Mount Semeru eruption. Photograph: Ammar/EPA
A truck buried under volcanic ash from the Mount Semeru eruption. Photograph: Ammar/EPA

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, and Indonesia’s Volcanology Centre for Geological Hazard Mitigation did not raise it this week, Mr Lelono said.

Mr 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.

‘Everything dark’

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 three miles from the crater. “It was a far stronger eruption than in January.”

Transport ministry spokeswoman 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.

The Darwin Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre said the spread of volcanic ash from Mount Semeru was detected to the southwest moving at a speed of 50 knots.

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. – Associated Press