Jakarta. Tens of thousands of people fled their homes on Friday, seeking refuge in crowded shelters in Central Java, as the island’s Mount Kelud erupted, showering the region in ash and grounding flights in both Indonesia and abroad.
Three people were killed in the immediate aftermath of Mount Kelud’s explosive eruption late Thursday night as more than 76,000 residents fled a dangerous storm of ash and rocks “the size of fists,” Agence France-Presse reported.
“The whole place was shaking — it was like we were on a ship in high seas,” Sunar told AFP. “We fled and could see lava in the distance flowing into a river.”
The volcano’s violent eruption was heard as far away as Yogyakarta as Mount Kelud spewed debris some 17 kilometers into the sky.
“It was like fireworks,” Dian Julihadi, 32, from Blitar district, told AFP. “There was a loud bang and bright red lights shot up into the air.”
The National Disaster Mitigation Agency (BNPB) urged some 200,000 people in a 10-kilometer area around Mount Kelud, in Kediri district, East Java, to evacuate their homes. By Friday night only 76,388 people had left their homes, BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told the Jakarta Globe.
The spokesman told AFP that several men tried to return to their homes in a last-minute effort to save their belongs. All were forced to turn back as volcanic debris continued to rain down on the area, he said.
In Malang, the roof of an evacuation shelter collapsed under the weight of the ash, crushing an elderly man and woman on Thursday. Another man died after inhaling the ash, according to reports by AFP.
Evacuees were crowded into an evacuation shelter in Malang, East Java, when the structure collapsed, said Sriono, a local resident who sought refuge in the building.
“At the time there were about 30 people [in the room],” Sriono told the Jakarta Globe. “We were waiting for a shuttle to be evacuated to the city of Batu [East Java] when the roof and walls suddenly collapsed. It was unable to withstand the [weight of the] falling ash.”
The man’s wife suffered serious injuries in the collapse.
“My wife had a fracture on the back of her head and cuts on her temples,” he said. “Two other victims died on the spot.”
The volcano was calm by Friday night, but ash continued to fall as far away as Bandung, West Java.
“The latest information said the eruption had stopped, but that volcanic ash was still falling,” Malang district chief Rendra Kresna told the Jakarta Globe. “The refugees will remain in the camps until the ash-fall subsides.”
The region will remain under alert until March 12, the local government announced.
Flights grounded, tourist sites closed down
Transportation officials temporarily suspended all flights into and out of seven airports in Java as international flights to Bali were forced to turn around.
“All flights to those airports have been cancelled, and other flights, including some between Australia and Indonesia, have been rerouted,” Transport Ministry director general of aviation Herry Bakti told AFP.
Virgin Australia was forced to cancel flights that flew near the affected area on Friday, explaining in a statement that “the safety of our customers is the highest priority.” Australian nurse Susanne Webster, 38, was on a late-morning Virgin flight from Sydney to Bali that was turned around.
“About two hours in, the pilot announced over in Indonesia there was a volcano that erupted and that we were turning the plane back,” she told AFP, adding they were still in Australian airspace at the time.
Australian airline Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific all cancelled or postponed flights to Jakarta and Surabaya on Friday and Saturday. Low-cost carrier AirAsia said 21 flights were affected by the eruption on Friday.
“The ashes could… compromise the safety and performance of the aircraft, such as [cause] permanent damage to the engine,” AirAsia said in a statement.
Garuda Indonesia cancelled flights to Malang, Semarang, Surabaya, Solo and Yogyakarta due to poor visibility. The airline expects the situation to remain poor for the next three days, Aminuloh, a station manager with the airline, told the Jakarta Globe on Friday.
“We are not selling tickets for three days due to the eruption at Kelud,” he said. “We expect visibility to improve in no more than three days.”
Several vital tourism sites, including the island’s famed Borobudur temple, were shut down on Friday as ash threatened to damage the historical sites and made transportation too hazardous. Borobudur may remain closed for as long as seven days to preserve the site’s iconic statues and stupas.
Indonesia’s Coordinating Economic Minister Hatta Rajasa expects the economic impact to be great.
“We haven’t calculated the loss, but it must be significant, as the economic activities in Java island are high” he said.
The local government prepared some 350,000 masks for those affected by Mount Kelud’s eruption. On Friday gray ash blanketed several cities in Central Java, covering the street in a thick layer of ash and dropping air quality to dangerous levels.
A health official in Yogyakarta warned residents to take care not to inhale too much ash. Masks should be worn everywhere, including inside buildings as ash seeps in through windows and ventilation shafts, and residents should dress in long clothes, avoiding letting the material touch their skin, said Evie Indra, a doctor in Ludira Husada Hospital in Yogyakarta.
“The content of the ashes includes silica crystal in the shape of quartz, cristobalite, or tridymite mineral,” Evie said. “The size is very small, in nanometers… For those with asthma, the production of mucus will increase and will make it harder to breathe.
“You should still use the mask inside of buildings. The size of volcanic ashes is so small so it may still be there even though you cannot see it.”
Another volcano begins ‘spewing smoke’
The Center for Vulcanology and Geological Disaster Mitigation (PVMBG) raised the status of Mount Lewotobi Perempuan in East Flores, East Nusa Tenggara, on Friday as the volcano showed signs that it was stirring to life.
“The increased status of this mountain is because of increasing volcanic activity,” East Nusa Tenggara Disaster Mitigation Agency head Tini Thadeus told the state-run Antara News Agency. ”The mountain is spewing white smoke.”
Local residents have been told to remain alert in case the situation worsens, Tini said.
The nation was left to cope with the affects of Mount Kelud’s eruption less than two weeks after a deadly eruption of Mount Sinabung left at least 16 dead in North Sumatra. The volcanically active archipelago sits on the Pacific’s “Ring of Fire.” There are some 127 active volcanos in Indonesia, including the active Mount Merapi.
Mount Kelud, once described as one of Java’s most dangerous, has claimed more than 15,000 lives since 1500.