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Eerie calm follows big blast at Indonesian volcano

world Updated: Oct 31, 2010 10:53 IST
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Thousands of villagers returned to their homes along the slopes of Indonesia's most volatile volcano on Sunday, taking advantage of an eerie lull following its most powerful eruption in a deadly week to check on crops and livestock.

Scientists warned, however, that the notoriously unpredictable mountain could burst back to life at any minute.

On the other side of the archipelago, deliveries of food and medicine to survivors of a tsunami that killed 413 people in the Mentawai islands were expected to resume on Sunday, thanks to a break in weather that earlier brought relief efforts to a complete standstill.

A teenage girl with an open chest wound was among those waiting for help.

The simultaneous catastrophes have severely tested the emergency response network in Indonesia, which lies in the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a cluster of fault lines prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity.

Mount Merapi, which means "Fire Mountain," unleashed a terrifying 21-minute eruption early on Saturday, forcing the temporary closure of a nearby airport and claiming another life, bringing the death toll in one week to 36, said Regina Wijaya, a hospital spokeswoman in the nearby city of Yogyakarta.

A fiery red glow emanated from its peak Sunday and black clouds of ash tumbled from its cauldron, but the violent bursts and rumbling of the last 48 hours had all but stopped. "It's still dangerous," warned Surono, chief of the Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation. "Often a major eruption, like the one we saw Saturday, is followed first by a period of silence, and then by another big blast."

At least 47,000 people have fled the mountain's wrath, according to the National Disaster Management Agency. 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. More than 2,000 troops have been called in to help keep villagers away during periods of high activity.

When the mountain is calm, however, they are allowed to go back for several hours between dawn and early afternoon to check on their precious livestock and crops.

"My farm has been destroyed by volcanic debris and thick dust. ... All I have left now are my cows and goats," said Subarkah, a farmer from Balerante, a village less than two miles (four kilometers) from the crater's mouth.

"I have to find grass and bring it up to them, otherwise they'll die," he said.

In the tsunami zone, meanwhile, where more than 23,000 people have been displaced, a break in weather raised hopes that boats and helicopters would be able to ferry noodles, sardines and sleeping mats to the most distant corners of the Mentawai islands. Relief efforts were brought to a halt Saturday by stormy weather and rough seas.

The death toll climbed to 413 this weekend, but officials halved the number of missing people after a total of 135 people were found by searchers or returned home after fleeing to the hills. At an overwhelmed hospital in Sikakap, the main town on Pagai Utara island, doctors said they need medical supplies to help about 150 injured survivors. 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.