Indonesian Volcano Death Toll Rises After Blasts

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia -- The most powerful eruption in a century from a volatile Indonesian volcano has killed at least 78 people and raised the death toll to 122.

Dozens of bodies were found Friday after searing gas avalanched down Mount Merapi around midnight. Houses and trees were torched and villagers incinerated as they fled.

The National Disaster Management Agency said on its website that the deaths around the village of Bronggang raised the toll to 122 by Friday afternoon.

The volcano sprung back to life Oct. 26, and thousands of villagers who live on the slopes have fled. Even scientists who monitor the volcano have been told to evacuate.

Soldiers joined overnight rescue operations in Bronggang, nine miles from the crater of Mount Merapi, pulling at least 58 corpses from smoldering homes and streets blanketed by ash up to one foot deep.

Dozens of injured people -- with clothes, blankets and even mattresses fused to their skin by the 1,400 degree Fahrenheit gas clouds -- were carried away on stretchers.

Authorities extended Mount Merapi's danger zone by three miles to 12 miles from the crater after the new eruption, said Subandrio, a state volcanologist.

The eruption just before midnight was six times as powerful as Merapi's initial blast on Oct. 26, sending men with ash-covered faces streaming down the scorched slopes on motorcycles. Truckloads of women and children, many crying, followed.

Officials wearing face masks barked out orders on bullhorns as rocks and debris rained from the sky.

"The heat surrounded us and there was white smoke everywhere," said Niti Raharjo, 47, who was thrown from his motorbike along with his 19-year-old son while trying to flee.

"I saw people running, screaming in the dark, women so scared they fell unconscious," he said from a hospital where they were both being treated for burns.

"There was an explosion that sounded like it was from a war ... and it got worse, the ash and debris raining down."

Up until Friday, the village of Bronggang, home to around 80 families, had been considered to be within the safety zone, despite signs that the notoriously unpredictable mountain could be ready to blow.

Mount Merapi, which means "Fire Mountain," has erupted many times in the last century. In 1994, over a period of several days, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were torched, leaving up to 1,300 dead.

The greatest danger is always pyroclastic flows, like those that roared down the southern slopes at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour.

With bodies found in front of houses or littering streets, it appeared that many of the villagers died from the searing gas while trying to escape the inferno, said Col. Tjiptono, a deputy police chief.

More than 70 injured people -- most with burns and some with respiratory problems, broken bones and cuts -- waited to be treated at the tiny Sardjito hospital, where bodies piled up in the morgue.

"We're totally overwhelmed here!" said Heru Nogroho, a hospital spokesman.

Heavy white ash covered the runways at the airport in nearby Yogyakarta, forcing it to close Friday. It was not clear when it would reopen, said Agus Andriyanto, who oversees operations.

Despite earlier predictions that dozens of big explosions that followed Merapi's initial Oct. 26 blast would ease pressure building up behind a magma dome, eruptions have been intensifying, baffling experts who have long monitored Merapi.

"I don't want to speculate if there's going to be a bigger eruption," said Syamsu Rizal, a state expert on volcanos. "But there's no indication at this stage that we're going to see it quiet down at all in the near future."

Even scientists from Merapi's monitoring station were told they had to pack up and move down the mountain. They were scrambling to repair four of their five seismographs destroyed by the heavy soot showers.

More than 75,000 people living along Merapi's fertile slopes have been evacuated to crowded emergency shelters, many by force, in the last week. Some return to their villages during lulls in activity, however, to tend to their livestock.

Before Friday, the death toll from Merapi stood at 44, with most dying in the Oct. 26 blast. With the new deaths around the village of Bronggang it climbed to 102.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanos because it sits along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the Pacific Ocean.

The volcano's initial blast occurred less than 24 hours after a towering tsunami slammed into the remote Mentawai islands on the western end of the country, sweeping entire villages to sea and killing at least 428 people.

There, too, thousands of people were displaced, many living in government camps.