INDONESIA – Mount Merapi in Central Java spewed cloud of hot ash.
Towering clouds of hot ash gushed from the mouth of Indonesia’s deadly volcano Thursday, forcing motorists in cities 20 miles (30 kilometers) away to use their headlights in broad daylight and raising concerns about aviation safety. The death toll climbed to 44.
As rocks and ash rained from the sky, soldiers helped load thousands of frightened villagers into trucks for a second day, including those seeking shelter in crowded emergency shelters.
Merapi’s more than a dozen powerful blasts and thousands of volcanic tremors and ash bursts since Oct. 26 temporarily shut nearby airports and — in recent days — closed air routes affected by the ash.
With no winds early Thursday, white clouds shot a spectacular 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) into the sky. Gusts later carried the smoke westward, with cities and towns up to 240 kilometers (150 miles) dusted in white power.
“I have asked the air transportation authorities to make sure the ash isn’t affecting visibility, ” said state volcanologist Surono, as motorists in the ancient city of Yogyakarta, where one airport is located, navigated dust-choked streets.
Officials insisted, however, that a Qantas jetliner forced to make an emergency landing after one of its four engines failed over Batam, an island 800 miles (1,400 kilometers) to the west, was unrelated.
“There was no connection with Mount Merapi,” said Bambang Ervan, a spokesman for the Transportation Ministry. “It was too far from the volcano — the sky over Singapore and Sumatra Island is free of dust. ”
Scientists said pressure apparently building inside Merapi’s crater may mean the worst is yet to come.
“It’s never acted like this before,” Surono said after watching the wide, fast sweeps of a needle on a seismograph machine. “It looks like we may be entering an even worse stage.”
The volcano, one of the world’s most active, has erupted many times in the last century, often with deadly results.
The number of people killed since it burst back to life just over a week ago climbed to 44, said Eka Saputra, a disaster officiall, raising the toll after three people died in a powerful eruption Wednesday and another succumbed to injuries from an earlier blast.
In 1994, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were torched, leaving up to 1,300 dead.
But as with almost all the blueish-gray volcanoes jetting from the landscape in this seismically charged country, tens of thousands of people live on the mountain’s rolling slopes, drawn to soil made fertile by generations of molten lava and volcanic debris.
More than 75,000 are now packed in crowded government camps well away from the base and, with no sign Merapi is going to quiet any time soon, may have to stay for weeks, or possibly months.
Some officials warned food, water and other supplies were running short.
Mount Merapi’s danger zone was widened Wednesday from six miles to nine miles (10 to 15 kilometers) from the peak. Even so, dozens of villagers displaced by the disaster took advantage of brief lull in activity Thursday afternoon to head back up the mountain to check on their livestock.
“We are really scared, but we have to feed our cattle,” said Sukadi, a 48-year-old farmer, as he brought grass to Boyong, his village six miles (nine kilometers) from the crater.
“We’re just going quickly,” added Semin, 54, his friend. “We’ll head back to the camp as soon as we’re done… our families are there.”
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.
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.