A massive eruption at Mount Semeru rocked East Java, Indonesia, this weekend. The volcano started erupting Saturday, sending a thick cloud of ash rising more than 12,000 metres in the air.
At least 15 people are dead, 27 more are missing, and hundreds of people have been displaced from their homes as rescue and cleanup efforts are just getting underway. More than 1,700 people have also been evacuated to 19 shelters across the province, the Command Post for Emergency Response of Mount Semeru told the press this weekend. Around 3,000 houses and 38 schools have been destroyed in the aftermath of the eruption, the emergency response agency said.
“Thick columns of ash have turned several villages to darkness,” Thoriqul Haq, the district head of Lumajang, told the AP.
‘Like It Was Going to Destroy the Earth’
The scenes in East Java are almost apocalyptic, with video footage showing ash and debris stretching for miles over abandoned villages. Local TV footage showed people running from ash clouds.
“At first, I thought it was a bomb explosion,” Hosniya, a 31-year-old student in the Sumberwuluh region, told Reuters. “Suddenly it was all dark, like it was going to destroy the earth.” Hosniya and her family managed to evacuate with just their official papers.
Rainfall May Have Helped Trigger the Eruption
Semeru is a very active volcano. It entered an eruptive period in 2014 that has continued off and on since then. Prior to this weekend’s eruption, it last erupted in January, with no casualties. This time, though, days of rain helped erode and collapse the lava dome at the top of the mountain. That triggered the eruption, Eko Budi Lelono, the head of Indonesia’s geological agency, told the AP.
Lava Is Also a Hazard
In addition to unleashing a massive plume of ash, Lelono said lava also cascaded down its slopes and travelled 792 metres into a nearby river. A dam burst near one village because of the lava flow, forcing hundreds of additional people to evacuate out of the path of the water.
Rescuers Using Hands to Dig
At least 41 people were also injured with burns after coming in contact with the hot lava flows, which also killed and injured livestock. Rescue efforts have been hampered by the lava and rock, as well as continuing rain. The lava has also destroyed a bridge between Lumajang with the city of Malang, which has made rescue efforts increasingly difficult. Rescuers have reportedly been using their bare hands to dig through ash and look for survivors and recover bodies.
‘The Bright Afternoon Turned Into Night’
“Suddenly everything went dark, the bright afternoon turned into night,” Fatmah, who lives in Curah Kobokan, which is about three miles from the volcanic crater, said after fleeing to a government-run shelter. “A rumbling sound and heat forced us to run to the mosque.”
Clouds of Ash Hampering Rescue
Operational Chief of Search and Rescue I Wayan Suyatna told CNN that clouds of volcanic ash are also hampering rescue operations. The debris, known as pyroclastic flow, is a mix of gases, ash, and other debris. Volcanic ash is filled with tiny, sharp particles, including glass, that can be particularly damaging when inhaled.
“Hot volcanic cloud is dangerous for the team safety,” Suyatna told CNN. “The weather here is also really bad. (It is) dark and rainy.”
Rain Could Make Matters Worse Still
Heavy rainfall could make hard search and rescue and recovery efforts that much more challenging. Volcanic ash is incredibly absorbent and can turn into a thick sludge once it gets wet. Rain can essentially double the weight of ash, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Not only can that hamper search and rescue, it could also cause more structures to collapse under the leaden weight. Guatemala’s Volcan de Fuego’s erupted during the 2018 rainy season and caused similar problems with cleanup and recovery.
Ring of Fire
Indonesia sits on a region known ominously as the Ring of Fire, a belt around the Pacific Ocean where the Pacific tectonic plate comes into contact with other tectonic plates, which can cause volcanic activity. East Java, which is located on Indonesia’s most densely populated island, is a volcano hotspot. The province is home to more than 120 active volcanoes, with hundreds more inactive ones. The 3,676-metre tall Semeru is the largest mountain on the island.