- Associated Press - Saturday, October 30, 2010

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia’s military forced villagers off the slopes of the country’s most volatile volcano Saturday, carrying some away screaming as the mountain sent clouds of gray ash cascading down its slopes in its most powerful explosion yet.

The notoriously unpredictable Mount Merapi forced the temporarily closure of an airport and claimed another life, bringing the death toll this week to 36.

Hundreds of miles (kilometers) to the west, meanwhile, relief workers said a total of 135 people missing since a tsunami hit a remote Indonesian island chain have been found alive or have returned to their villages after fleeing to the hills to escape the giant wave. There are still 163 missing and 413 dead from the tsunami, officials said.

Many tsunami survivors waited for food and other supplies Saturday as violent storms grounded all aid deliveries. Some of those injured by the towering wave — including a 12-year-old girl with an open chest wound — were suffering without enough painkillers and could die if they aren’t evacuated, doctors said at one hospital.

The catastrophes, striking earlier in the week at different ends of the seismically active country, have severely tested the emergency response network. Indonesia lies in the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a cluster of fault lines prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity.

Mount Merapi, which sprang back to life early this week, unleashed a terrifying 21-minute eruption early Saturday, followed by more than 350 volcanic tremors and 33 ash bursts, said Surono, chief of the Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation.

Government camps well away from the base were overflowing with refugees, including most of the 11,000 people who live on the mountain’s fertile slopes. They were told Saturday, with signs the danger level was climbing, that they should expect to stay for three more weeks.

Despite such warnings, many people have returned to their land to check on precious crops and livestock. The new eruption triggered a chaotic pre-dawn exit, killing a 44-year-old woman who was fleeing by motorcycle, said Rusdiyanto, head of disaster management office in the main city of Yogyakarta.

For the first time, more than 2,000 troops were called in to help keep villagers clear of the mountain — except between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. when it appeared to be calm. Camouflaged soldiers stood guard in front of ash-covered homes.

“Once the sirens go off, no excuse, everyone has to get back to the camps,” said Djarot Nugroho, head of the Central Java disaster management agency.

The eruption temporarily forced the closure of the airport in Yogyakarta, 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of the volcano, because of poor visibility and heavy ash on the south of the runway, said Naelendra, an airport official.

Despite earlier hopes that Merapi’s activity might be waning, scientists warned Saturday the worst may be yet to come.

High-pressure gas appeared to be building up behind a newly formed thick magna dome in the crater, “setting the stage, potentially, for a more explosive eruption,” said Subandrio, who heads the nearby volcanology center.

“It’s a bad sign,” he said.

In the tsunami zone, where more than 23,000 people have been displaced, government agencies were forced to pull back boats and helicopters that had been ferrying noodles, sardines and sleeping mats to the most distant corners of the Mentawai islands because of stormy weather and rough seas.

The death toll climbed to 413 Saturday but officials nearly halved the number of missing people after a total of 135 people were found by searchers or returned home from the hills. Volunteer searcher Patigor Siahaan said three children — aged 6, 7 and 8 — were discovered in the rubble of their collapsed house, where their parents died. Most of the others were found in small groups.

Rescue workers had hoped to airdrop aid using a plane and four helicopters Saturday, but storms made it too dangerous, said Ade Edward, an official with the provincial disaster management agency.

He said navy ships on their way to the devastated area had been halted by 18-foot (six-meter) waves and were stranded in the port of Padang on Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s main islands.

Doctors said they need medical supplies to help about 150 injured survivors in Sikakap, the main town on Pagai Utara island. The hospital’s swelteringly hot rooms were filled with the moans of patients with flushed, sweat-coated faces.

“We need morphine,” said Dr. Alyssa Scurrah, who flew in from Sydney, Australia. She said the hospital was desperate for a generator, antibiotics and a chest drain.

One of Scurrah’s patients was a 12-year-old girl who was struggling to breathe due to an open chest wound. She clenched her teeth and cried out as a doctor applied cotton pads to the gash along her rib cage.

The doctor said the girl needs to go to Padang for surgery, but no one could get off the island Saturday because of the weather.

“If she stays here, she may not live,” Scurrah said.

One bright spot amid the misery: A baby girl was born at the hospital on Friday. The mother was caught in the wave as it slammed into her village, doctors said, but her injuries were not severe and she and her baby were expected to be fine.

___

Associated Press writers Achmad Ibrahim and Kristen Gelineau in the Mentawai islands and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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