By Slamet Riyadi, AP
MOUNT MERAPI — Rescusers scoured the slopes of Indonesia’s most volatile volcano Wednesday after it was rocked by an eruption that spewed clouds of searing ash, killing at least 25 villagers including an old man known as the mountain’s spiritual gatekeeper.
The blast eased pressure that had been building up behind a lava dome perched on the volcano’s crater, but experts said the worst may not be over. The lava dome could unleash deadly gases and debris if it collapses.
“It’s a little calmer today,” said Surono, the chief of Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation. “No hot clouds, no rumbling. But a lot of energy is pent up back there. There’s no telling what’s next.”
Mount Merapi, which translates as “Fire Mountain,” has erupted many times over the last 200 years, often with deadly results. In 1994, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were incinerated, leaving up to 1,300 dead.
Still, as with other volcanoes in Indonesia, many people call its fertile slopes home. More than 11,000 live near Merapi.
Though thousands streamed into makeshift emergency shelters after Tuesday’s powerful eruption, many started returning Wednesday saying they had to tend to their crops and protect their homes.
“I keep thinking about what’s happening up there, with my cows, my property,” said Hadi Sumarmo, who has a farm in Srumbung, a village three miles (seven kilometers) from the crater’s mouth. “I just want to go back to check. If I hear sirens, I’ll get out again quickly.”
Even as rescue officials contended with the volcano – one of 129 to watch in the world’s largest archipelago – officials were trying to assess the impact of a 7.7-magnitude earthquake off Sumatra island that triggered a three-meter (10-foot) -high tsunami, killing more than 100 people and leaving scores missing.
The twin disasters happened hours apart in one of the most seismically active regions on the planet.
Officials said earlier that by closely monitoring the famously active volcano they thought they could avoid casualties, but the death toll was quickly rising.
Aris Triyono, of the national search and rescue agency, said his teams were scouring the southern slope of the mountain, which has been pounded by rocks and debris, in search of victims and survivors.
Twenty-five bodies have been brought to the main hospital in the city of Yogyakarta, said Endita Sri Andiyanti, a spokeswoman, and more than a dozen others were admitted with respiratory problems, burns and other injuries.
Among the dead was Maridjan, an 85-year-old man who had been entrusted by a highly respected late king to watch over the volcano’s spirits.
“We found his body,” said Suseno, a member of the search and rescue team, amid reports that the old man was found in the position of praying, kneeling face-down on the floor.
Maridjan, who for years led ceremonies in which rice and flowers were thrown into the crater to appease spirits, has angered officials in the past by refusing to evacuate even during eruptions.