ARGOMULYO, Indonesia (AFP) – Indonesia’s most active volcano killed at least 58 people Friday in its biggest eruption in over a century, driving thousands more into emergency shelters, smothering homes and grounding flights.
The latest deaths bring the total toll to more than 100 since Mount Merapi started erupting on Java island on October 26, a day after a tsunami killed more than 400 people off Sumatra island to the west.
The mountain spewed ash over a vast area including the Central Java provincial capital of Yogyakarta about 28 kilometres (17 miles) to the south.
“The death toll rose to 58 including seven toddlers,” said doctor Suseno Wibowo at Sarjito hospital in Yogyakarta.
Hospital spokesman Banu Hermawan said earlier: “The evacuation process is still ongoing now. We’re afraid there’ll be more deaths as some locations are still inaccessible due to hot ash and volcanic material.”
Many of the dead were children from Argomulyo village, 18 kilometres from the crater, according to emergency response officials and witnesses.
“I found three bodies: a child, mother and father, still on their bed. They must have been sleeping when the hot ash struck their house,” rescuer Utha told AFP as he delivered 10 bodies to the hospital.
“We also found a dead man with a phone still on his hand.”
Yogyakarta police force medic Teguh Dwi Santosa said: “Argomulyo village has been burned down to the ground by the heat clouds. Many children have died there. When I was in the village the ground was still hot.”
A river running through the village overflowed with a thick mixture of mud and ash, and several bodies lay unclaimed in the debris, witnesses said.
Ash, deadly heat clouds and molten debris gushed from the mouth of the 2,914-metre (9,616-foot) mountain and shot high into the sky for most of the night and into the morning.
There was panic and chaos on the roads as people fled in the darkness, rescue workers said.
The ranks of evacuees swelled past 100,000 people, with 30,000 moved into a sports stadium about 25 kilometres away from the peak.
The international airport at Yogyakarta was closed as ash clouds billowed to the altitude of cruising jetliners and the runway was covered in grey soot. Officials said the airport would remain closed until Saturday.
Merapi killed around 1,300 people in 1930 but even though the total death toll from its latest series of eruptions since October 26 is only about 100, they are considered the biggest since 1872.
“Judging from the material emitted, Merapi’s eruption this time is bigger than the 1930 eruption,” government volcanologist Subandrio said.
The exclusion zone was widened from 15 to 20 kilometres around the mountain and everyone living in the area was ordered to evacuate their homes and shelters immediately, he said.
Indonesia’s transport ministry has told pilots to stay at least 12 kilometres away from the rumbling volcano and several flights linking central Java to Singapore and Malaysia have been cancelled this week.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced the deployment of an army brigade to help with relief and reconstruction in central Java, as the disaster-prone country struggles to cope with dual natural disasters including the October 25 tsunami.
“The military is preparing to deploy one brigade to handle disaster management,” he told a press conference.
The three-metre tsunami smashed into villages on the remote Mentawai island chain following a 7.7-magnitude earthquake off the coast, killing 428 people and leaving 15,000 homeless.
Another 74 people remain missing, feared dead.
Bad weather and poor communications on the undeveloped islands — a legendary destination for foreign surfers — have hampered relief operations.
Three New Zealand yachtsmen who had not been heard from since the tsunami turned up safe and sound, their families said Friday.
The Indonesian archipelago has dozens of active volcanoes and straddles major tectonic fault lines from the Indian to the Pacific oceans. The 2004 Asian tsunami killed almost 170,000 people in Indonesia alone.