Mount Merapi Quiets Down, but Still Poses Deadly Threat

Scientists warned Tuesday that erupting Mount Merapi still posed a deadly threat to villagers living on its lava-scarred slopes, even as volcanic activity eased.

Clouds of searing hot gases and debris continued to stream down the mountain, but not as far or as often as they did Monday, which saw the most violent activity in several weeks.

"That is Merapi," said Ratdomopurbo, the region's chief vulcanologist, who like many Javanese uses a single name. "She is always fluctuating."

A large, unstable lava dome perched on the crater formed by magma from within the volcano remained in place and could still collapse, triggering a deadly surge in ash and gas, Ratdomopurbo said.

Merapi, whose fertile slopes rise from the center of Indonesia's densely populated Java island, last erupted in 1994, killing 60 people.

Authorities Saturday declared the highest-category threat, triggering a mandatory evacuation for more than 5,000 people living closest to the crater. They are staying in mosques, schools and government buildings.

"I have had enough of this," said 70-year-old refugee Joratma, a grandchild playing at her feet. "All I want to do is go home."

Many people living in the evacuated area go home in the day to tend to crops and animals, either on foot or on trucks provided by authorities.

But some people have dismissed the warnings altogether.

Most Indonesians are Muslim, but many also follow animist beliefs and worship ancient spirits. When the moon is full, they may trek to the crater's rim to throw in rice, jewelry and live animals to appease the volcano's spirits.

An 80-year-old man, appointed by the nearby royal court as Merapi's spiritual guardian, said he was not leaving even though his house is in the mandatory evacuation zone.

"There is no risk," Maridjan said outside his home, only four miles from the crater.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said that more people were leaving the area, and that the government had learned much about disaster management from the 2004 tsunami.

"Let me say you are doing a good job," he told local emergency officials. "God willing, whatever happens, we can get over it."

Still, about 200 villagers are refusing to leave.

"Only God knows what will happen. We can only ask for his protection," said Riskani, as her 8-year-old son played with toy trucks in a dusting of ash that fell Monday.

Lynton Jaques, from Australia's geoscience agency, predicted "days or weeks" of activity at the peak and said that flows of ash, gas and debris — not a massive eruption — are the main threat to people.

The flows "are like a glowing avalanche that just incinerate everything in their path," he said.