Volcanic Eruption In Indonesia Stretches To 2nd Week

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NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Indonesia, where he joined a search and rescue mission near the foot of the nation's most active volcano. Mount Merapi has been erupting violently for almost two weeks.


It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

For weeks now, Indonesia's most active volcano has been sending tons of ash and rock into the air.�It has killed more than 200 people, and more than a quarter of a million have fled their homes.�NPR's Anthony Kuhn joined a search-and-rescue mission near the foot of the mountain this morning. He's now on the line from the city of Solo on the Indonesian island of Java.

Anthony, where have you been today?

ANTHONY KUHN: Very early this morning, Steve, I set out with Kopassus, the army special forces. And we went on a search-and-rescue mission just a couple of miles from the foot of the mountain. What we saw was a charred moonscape. Flows of lava and hot gases had flowed down the volcano, scorched an entire village. The army unit we were with said they found seven bodies - or at least charred sets of remains. It was a very powerful and very dangerous scene.

And had there been further eruptions, there could've been real trouble for the soldiers and the journalists. The eruption is continuing at a slow rate. It started on the 26th of October, but the biggest blast was on November 5th. And since then, it just keeps on billowing smoke and ash.

INSKEEP: Will you help describe the landscape there, Anthony, and how it's changing? Are there rivers of lava coming down, or is it more ash falling through the air?

KUHN: Well, what's happening is the wind is blowing westward. So yesterday, I went west of the volcano. And there, it's like snowing huge pieces of ash. And that ash is heavy, and it collapses all the trees. And most of the farmers there farm tropical fruits. So it's destroyed all their crops. Everything - all the palm trees and the fruit trees have all collapsed. And a lot of houses have collapsed, too.

Now, just to the south of the volcano is the major Javanese city of Jakarta. And so far, that's safe. But we had to abort our mission very quickly this morning because the winds started to change direction and blow south.

INSKEEP: So you have these blasts of the volcano, and they're flinging out ash. And depending on which way the wind is going, you really don't want to be downwind from the volcano at that moment. That's what's happening here?

KUHN: That's correct. And I also went to a hospital where I spoke to burn victims. And they were hit by what are called pyroclastic flows, which are flows of gas hundreds of degrees hot.

And I spoke to one man who was burned very seriously in his house, hiding under his own mattress. So these flows of gas flow down following riverbeds, coming off the slope of the volcano. And they hit communities near the rivers, and they can be devastating.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Anthony Kuhn. You mentioned you were out with the special forces who were looking to rescue people, or at least recover bodies. Is it believed that there are significant numbers of people still in danger and within range of the volcano?

KUHN: Yes. Well, volcanologists actually predicted this eruption before it happened. So they managed to evacuate large numbers of people. I also went to a stadium yesterday where the refugees are living. But, you know, not all the residents heeded the warnings.

And one reason for this is they have this so-called spiritual guardian of the mountain who didn't think the eruption was going to happen. And a lot of people listened to him. So, you know, as we were going out to the volcano today, we passed farmers cultivating their rice paddies, just about oblivious to this huge volcanic activity going on right to the north of them.

INSKEEP: What happened to that spiritual leader, Anthony?

KUHN: He, himself, became a burned offering to the mountain, you could say. He was found in his home, burned to death in a prayer position. The appointment of the next guardian is up to the local sultan. There's a selection process in progress right now.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anthony Kuhn has been moving around the base of the volcano in Indonesia.

Anthony, thanks very much.

KUHN: Thank you, Steve.

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