Poor weather hinders search and rescue at Indonesian volcano

National disaster agency surveys area from the air after Mount Semeru sent towering columns of hot ash into the sky.

Some rescue efforts at the eruption of Mount Semeru volcano had to be suspended on Monday because of poor weather [Willy Kurniawan/Reuters]

Search and rescue efforts after the eruption of Indonesia’s Semeru volcano have been suspended because of poor weather, as officials monitoring the mountain urged caution following the weekend’s deadly eruption.

Semeru, in the east of Java island, erupted dramatically on Saturday, sending a towering column of ash into the sky that blanketed surrounding villages.

Indonesia’s national disaster agency said the number killed rose to 22 on Monday night and 27 people were still missing. Dozens have been injured.

Officials from the Indonesian disaster agency surveyed the affected area by helicopter on Monday morning, sharing images on Twitter that showed once-verdant fields submerged beneath the ash. On the ground military officers, police and residents dug through the mud with their hands to try and extricate victims.

The volcano erupted again on Monday, Indonesia’s Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation confirmed via its Twitter account, warning of continued seismic activity.

The head of the Semeru Volcano Observatory, who like many Indonesians, only goes by one name, Liswanto, warned people to keep a safe distance from the mountain, amid reports anxious residents had returned to their homes to check on belongings and livestock.

“The status of Mount Semeru is still at level 2, which means at this level, people need to be more vigilant because the potential threat is still there,” he said.

More than 50 people had suffered injuries from the eruption, mostly burns. Lava flows also destroyed a bridge connecting two areas in the nearby district of Lumajang with the city of Malang.

(Translation: The head of the National Disaster Management Unit Lt Gen Suharyanto and his staff inspected the location affected by the avalanche of hot clouds from Mt Semeru by helicopter)

In the Sumberwuluh area, where two trucks lay half-buried by volcanic ash, recovery efforts came to an abrupt halt because of strong winds, a witness said, according to the Reuters news agency.

Dewa Arya, from the search and rescue agency said Monday his team was working to retrieve a family of five, but their efforts had been temporarily thwarted by bad weather.

Dangerous thick plumes of smoke continued to emerge from areas blanketed by the volcanic ash, while rescuers in hardhats tried to dig through the mud to try and find survivors – and recover bodies.

Their task was made more difficult as the volcanic debris had started to harden.

“It’s very difficult… with simple tools,” rescue worker Rizal Purnama said. “It is very likely bodies that have not been found are buried under the hot mudflow.”

A sand mine company’s office in Kampung Renteng village was buried after the eruption, trapping 15 people, according to foreman Hasim, 65.

“There’s no news from them. Only one operator was rescued, he’s now at the hospital with burns,” he told AFP.

Hasim said he ran home after the eruption. “It was pitch dark,” he said. “It was only 3pm but it looked like night.”

Rescue officials said some were buried inside their vehicles, with no time to escape.

More than 1,000 people have taken temporary shelter in evacuation centres.

Hundreds of aid packages, including rice, blankets and clothes and other basic necessities have been sent to the area, and a trauma healing team to work with children affected by the eruption is also on its way, according to media outlet CNN Indonesia.

Semeru is one of more than 100 active volcanoes in Indonesia, which is located on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where a number of tectonic plates meet creating an area of high seismic activity.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies