Mount Merapi, Indonesia. Frightened residents in a bustling city of 400,000 at the foot of Indonesia’s rumbling volcano headed out of town Monday, cramming onto trains and buses and even rented vehicles to seek refuge with family and friends far away.
Images of a mass burial for many of the 141 people killed in the last two weeks served as a reminder of the mountain’s furor.
“My parents have been calling … saying ‘You have to get out of there! You have to come home!’” said Linda Ervana, a 21-year-old history student who was waiting with friends at a train station in the university town of Yogyakarta, 30 kilometers from Mount Merapi.
After failing to get tickets, they finally decided to rent a minibus with other classmates.
“It feels like that movie ‘2012,’” said her 22-year-old friend, Paulina Setin. “Like a disaster in a movie.”
The notoriously unpredictable mountain unleashed its most powerful eruption in a century Friday, sending hot clouds of gas, rocks and debris avalanching down its slopes at highway speeds, smothering entire villages and leaving a trail of charred corpses in its path.
Concerns over the risk posed by ash lingering in the air prompted many international airlines to cancel flights to the capital, Jakarta, just days before President Barack Obama’s planned trip to Indonesia — his second stop in a 10-day Asian tour.
All were back in the air Monday and White House officials said Obama was still scheduled to touch down on Tuesday.
Mount Merapi, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, has erupted many times in the last century, killing more than 1,400. But Friday was the mountain’s deadliest day since 1930, with nearly 100 lives lost.
Islam mandates that the dead be buried quickly, so authorities gave relatives three days to identify their loved ones. To speed up the process, most families chose to have their relatives interred in a mass grave — a common practice in Indonesia following a disaster.
One by one the bodies — some too charred to be identified — were lowered into a massive trench, dug into a large green field in the shadow of the volcano. Some were in plain wooden coffins, others still in the morgue’s yellow body bags.
Merapi, meanwhile, showed few signs of tiring Monday, sending out thunderous claps as it shot clouds of gas and debris high into the air.
The Indonesian government has put Yogyakarta on high alert.
The ash hung so thickly that breathing became painful and clothes stunk of smoke after any time spent outdoors, and the city’s airport was closed yet again on Monday.
Though there have been no orders to evacuate, many residents decided to go on their own. They were seen packing up their homes and piling into cars and motorcycles.
“What choice do we have?” asked Sukirno, 37, as he sped away with his wife and their 8-year-old daughter, saying he worried about the effect of the ash on their health.
The biggest threat to the city, experts say, is not searing gas clouds, but the Code River, which flows right into the city’s heart from the 3,000-meter mountain.
It could act as a conduit for deadly volcanic mudflows that form in heavy rains, racing at speeds of up to 100 kilometers and destroying everything in their path. A thick, black volcanic sludge has already inundated one city neighborhood that starts at the river bank and climbs a hillside.
In Romomangun, the mud burst the banks and poured into buildings.
It has filled a path that runs along the river — which is usually about a meter below a retaining wall but is now even with it. The sludge also rushed into a small, one-room building on the bank that houses a public bathroom. The top of the entry door is now at waist level.
Merapi’s latest round of eruptions began Oct. 26, followed by more than a dozen other powerful blasts and thousands of tremors.
The National Disaster Management Agency said the overall death toll from the volcano climbed from 138 to 141 on Monday after search and rescue teams found more bodies on the mountain.
Nearly 280,000 people — many of whom normally live on the fertile slopes of the volcano — have jammed into emergency shelters. Many have complained of poor sanitation, saying there were not enough toilets or clean drinking water.