A giant, hot volcanic ash cloud spewed out of Mount Sinabung in western Sumatra on Saturday, killing 14 people. A spokesman for the National Agency for Disaster Management said that the 8,350-foot volcano erupted a total of three times on Saturday, producing mile-high ash columns and spreading pyroclastic flows and lava over a 2.8 mile radius. The first eruption is said to have started at 10:30 a.m., lasting for over eight minutes and was immediately followed by the second eruption, which took place at 10:38 a.m. and lasted for just over four minutes. The third eruption began at 11:27 a.m. and lasted for 84 seconds. Television footage showed trees, farms and villages being engulfed by thick gray ash.
Mount Sinabung has been erupting sporadically since September. The authorities had evacuated more than 30,000 people, housing them in cramped tents, schools and public buildings. Officials said that the volcanology agency had recorded the “sagged” seismic activity of Mount Sinabung, but a three-mile danger zone had remained in place. Because the volcano’s activity was thought to have decreased, on Friday authorities allowed 14,000 people whose homes were outside the three-mile danger zone to return to their homes. After Saturday’s eruptions they were ordered back into evacuation centers.
Urgently needing to check on their farms and homes, villagers living close to the peak have been returning over the past four months to their homes despite the dangers. The soil on the slopes of volcanoes makes for very fertile soil, which attracts the villagers and presents a dilemma for the Sumatran government.
Lieutenant Colonel Asep Sukarna led the operation to recover the bodies of 14 whose lives were claimed by the Mt. Sinabung eruption. They were located in a number of areas within Suka Meriah, a village located two miles away from the volcano’s peak. Sukarna predicted that the death toll would likely rise as the rescue efforts were impeded by darkness and many people have been reported missing. Those who were killed by Mount Sinabung’s eruption included a local journalist and a teacher who was with four high school students. It has been reported that they had visited the mountain to get a closer look at the eruptions. The Mount Sinabung Media Center head Jhonson Tarigan said that the bodies of the victims were stiff and completely burned when they were found. Before Saturday, the eruptions had already claimed the lives of 31 evacuees who had died as a result of various illnesses such as hypertension, asthma, depression and breathing difficulties.
Mount Sinabung had been quiet for four hundred years until it caught many scientists off-guard in August of 2010 in an eruption that killed two people and forced 30,000 to flee. There are around 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia, an area prone to seismic upheaval because of its location on the arc of fault lines and volcanoes that circle the Pacific Basin known as the “Ring of Fire.”
The most volatile volcano in Indonesia, Mount Merapi, killed 324 people in 2010 over a period of two months. Authorities then, as now in Sinabung, had strived with difficulty to keep people away from the mountain. Indonesian volcanoes, including Merapi and Sinabung, are monitored nonstop by scientists, but accurately predicting their activity is nearly impossible, which was sadly underscored by the 14 deaths brought about by today’s eruption of Mount Sinabung.
By Donna Westlund