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Indonesian volcano kills 138, cancels flights

By Associated Press


MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia >> International airlines fearful of volcanic ash canceled flights Saturday into Indonesia's capital, while the closure of airports nearest Mount Merapi has delayed the arrival of burn cream and ventilators for those whose skin and lungs were singed by searing gases. The series of eruptions, including the deadliest in decades, has killed 138 people.

In the area's only burn unit, one patient lies mummified in thick, white bandages from neck to toe, his face a patchwork of black and ashen splotches. He never blinks his milky gray eyes. The only sign of life is the shallow rising and falling of his chest.

He has little company: Of the 31 burn victims taken to Sardjito hospital, at the foot of the volcano, the burn unit has room for just nine. Of those, only eight get a ventilator.

With nearby airports closed because of poor visibility, hospital officials said lots of supplies — including burn cream, oxygen masks and saline solution for IVs — were stuck in Jakarta. Dr. Ishandono Dahlan said he needed at least four more ventilators to protect the delicate, inflamed lung tissue of patients from the ash hanging in the air. In the meantime, nursing students were pumping emergency respirators — normally only used in short ambulance trips — by hand.

Indonesia's most volatile mountain unleashed nearly two billion cubic feet of gas, rocks and ash Friday that raced down its slopes at highway speeds, mowing down a slope-side village and leaving a trail of charred corpses in its path. Photos taken by a disaster management team afterward showed bodies frozen in their last moments, covered in a thick charcoal-like ash. Several showed bodies welded together, as mothers and fathers clutched their children.

The number of people killed by Mount Merapi in the last two weeks climbed to 138, according to Sigit Priohutomo, a senior hospital official. The volcano continued to rumble and groan Saturday, at times spitting ash up to five miles (eight kilometers) in the air, dusting windshields, rooftops and leaves on trees hundreds of miles (kilometers) away.

Just days before President Barack Obama's visit to Indonesia, international carriers canceled flights to the capital, Jakarta, over concerns about the volcano, 280 miles away.

"The volcanic ash presence in the airways surrounding Jakarta could cause severe damage to our aircraft and engines which could impair the safety of our operations including passengers and crew," said Azharuddin Osman, director of operations for Malaysia Airlines.

Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa and Etihad Airways also temporarily suspended flights, taking the national disaster international. Flights to Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi, Tokyo and Hong Kong, as well as many regional destinations, were among those affected.

Domestic flights were running normally, except for those going to airports near the volcano that shut.

The eruption of Iceland's Eyjafjallajokul volcano in April forced the closure of most European airports for a week and led to the cancellation of over 100,000 flights.

Tia Wanti, an information officer at the Jakarta airport, implied Saturday's move by airlines was premature, saying the dust wasn't causing problems either in the skies above the airport or on its runways. About 10 percent of the 1,200 flights Jakarta handles a day were canceled.

The Indonesian government, meanwhile, has expanded a "danger zone" to a ring 12 miles from the peak, bringing it to the edge of the ancient royal capital of Yogyakarta, which has been put on its highest alert.

The biggest threat is the Code River, which flows into the city of 400,000 from the 9,700-foot mountain and could act as a conduit for deadly volcanic mudflows that form in heavy rains.

Racing at speeds of 60 mph, the molten lava, rocks and other debris, can destroy everything in their path. People living near the river's banks have been advised to stay away.

With the deaths of at least 94 people, Friday was Merapi's deadliest day in decades. More than 200 others were injured with burns, respiratory problems, broken bones and cuts, leaving the tiny hospital of Sardjito — the most sophisticated in the area — overwhelmed.

The hospital's tiny burn unit has been forced to turn away all but the most severe cases, officials said. Those with the worst smoke inhalation — which scorches and inflames lung tissue, making breathing difficult if not impossible — get top priority. Next, the severity and extent of burns is considered.

Sudarjo is one of the worst cases. He was burned over 60 percent of his body while trying to return to his house to rescue his 100-year-old mother, who was later saved by a relative. He had ferried his wife, Saminah, to safety and now she keeps watch over him, talking to him by his bed when she's allowed into the ward and keeping vigil in the hallway when she isn't.

"I will stay here (until he's discharged). Who else if not me?" said Saminah, whose face crinkles when she smiles, indicating her age, though she cannot remember when she was born.

The unit is supposed to be the most sterile in the hospital since burns are essentially open wounds and prone to infection. While a pass code restricts entry, Dahlan, a plastic surgeon, said it's a struggle to keep the unit hermetic.

The air conditioning frequently breaks, so someone opens a window. The entryway has double doors, but the interior set are often left open, meaning the whole unit is exposed whenever anyone enters. Visitors are asked to come in one at a time, and to don cotton gowns and masks, but the rules are easily broken and the gowns have begun to feel grimy.

Still, conditions on the unit are far better than in the rest of the hospital. Many wards are not sealed off at all, with only a swinging door to the outside. Families crowd the hallways, sleeping on mats, and a sprinkling of dust covers everything, from the stretchers to the doctors' white coats.

Conditions were also deteriorating at emergency shelters in the shadow of the volcano that were crammed with more than 200,000 people evacuated from the mountain.

With muddy floors, flies landing on the faces of sleeping refugees, many complained of poor sanitation, saying there were not enough toilets or clean drinking water.

Merapi's latest round of eruptions began Oct. 26, followed by more than a dozen other powerful blasts and thousands of tremors.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanoes because it sits along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the Pacific Ocean.

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