MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia – Rescuers scoured the slopes of Indonesia’s most volatile volcano Wednesday after it was rocked by an eruption that spewed clouds of searing ash, killing at least 28 villagers including an old man known as the mountain’s spiritual gatekeeper.
The blast eased pressure that had been building up behind a lava dome perched on the volcano’s crater, but experts said the worst may not be over. The lava dome could unleash deadly gases and debris if it collapses.
“It’s a little calmer today,” said Surono, the chief of Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation. “No hot clouds, no rumbling. But a lot of energy is pent up back there. There’s no telling what’s next.”
Mount Merapi, which translates as “Fire Mountain,” has erupted many times over the last 200 years, often with deadly results. In 1994, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were incinerated, leaving up to 1,300 dead.
Still, as with other volcanoes in Indonesia, more than 11,000 people call its fertile slopes home.
Though thousands streamed into makeshift emergency shelters after Tuesday’s powerful eruption, many defied officials’ warnings and started returning Wednesday, saying they had to tend to their crops and protect their homes.
“We’ll do everything we can to stop them,” said Hadi Purnomo, the district chief in Sleman, describing several formerly plush villages south of the crater as ‘death zones.’ “There’s no life there. The trees, farms, houses are scorched. Everything is covered in heavy gray ash.”