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LUMAJANG, Indonesia – The death toll from the eruption of the highest volcano on Indonesia’s most densely populated island, Java, has risen to 13, and seven people remain missing, officials said on Sunday. responsible, as smoking debris and thick mud hampered search efforts.
Mount Semeru, in Lumajang District, East Java Province, spat thick columns of ash more than 12,000 meters (40,000 feet) into the sky, and burning gas and lava flowed on its slopes after a sudden eruption triggered by heavy rains on Saturday. Several villages were covered with falling ash.
A thunderstorm and rainy days, which eroded and ultimately collapsed the lava dome atop Semeru, 3,676 meters (12,060 feet), triggered the eruption, said Eko Budi Lelono, who heads the center of geological study.
He said streams of scorching gas and lava had traveled up to 800 meters (2,624 feet) to a nearby river at least twice on Saturday. People were urged to stay 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) from the mouth of the crater, the agency said.
“Thick columns of ash plunged several villages into darkness,” said Lumajang district chief Thoriqul Haq. Several hundred people were moved to temporary shelters or left in other safe areas, he said, adding that a power outage hampered the evacuation.
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Debris and lava mixed with the precipitation formed thick mud that destroyed the main bridge connecting Lumajang and neighboring Malang District, 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 its eruption began last year, and the Indonesian Volcanology Center for Mitigation geological hazards did not pick it up this week, Lelono said.
National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesperson Abdul Muhari said at least 13 villagers died from severe burns and 57 were hospitalized, 16 of them in critical condition with burns. He said rescuers were still looking for seven residents and sand miners along a river in the village of Curah Kobokan who were 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 the Semeru monitoring station, said his office informed the community and miners that hot ash could fall from Semeru Crater at any time, after sensors detected increased activity during the last week.
Hendra Permana / AP
But some residents who fled to a government shelter near the Lumajang district headquarters said authorities had not provided them with any information about the volcano’s activities.
“Suddenly everything got dark, the bright afternoon turned into night. A roar and heat forced us to run to the mosque,” said Fatmah, a resident who fled to the shelter. Curah Kobokan, about 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the crater. “It was a much stronger rash than in January.”
Transportation Ministry spokeswoman Adita Irawati said her office issued a notice on Saturday asking all airlines to avoid routes near the volcano. She said flight operations are still going as planned and authorities will continue to monitor the situation. The Darwin Volcanic Ash Advisory Center said the spread of volcanic ash from Mount Semeru was detected to the southwest moving at a speed of 50 knots.
TV reports have shown people screaming and running under a huge cloud of ash, their faces wet from rain mixed with volcanic dust. The last Semeru eruption in January claimed no casualties.
Indonesia, an archipelago of over 270 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity as it lies along the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, a series of fault lines in horseshoe shape.