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Death toll from Indonesian volcano now at 56

Death toll from Indonesian volcano now at 56
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Thursday, November 4, 2010 - 5:47pm

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia (AP) -- The death toll from Indonesia's fiery volcano has climbed to 56 after a blistering gas cloud ripped through a mountainside village.

Rescuers say at least 12 people were killed in the inferno and 50 others were hospitalized with injuries.

Men with ash-covered faces streamed down Mount Merapi on motorcycles followed by truckloads of women and crying children, following the massive eruption just before midnight Friday.

Waluyo Raharjo, a search and rescue official, said the bodies from the hard-hit village of Bronggang, located 9 miles (15 kilometers) from the crater, were being taken to a hospital morgue.

It was not immediately clear why families living within Merapi's "danger zone" had not been evacuated.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia (AP) - Eruptions at Indonesia's deadly volcano appeared to be intensifying Friday, as clouds of searing gas and ash cascaded down the mountain, torching homes in one slope-side village and triggering a chaotic midnight evacuation.

Hospital workers said a 3-year-old girl was killed and more than 50 people injured - most with severe burns.

Men with ash-covered faces streamed down Mount Merapi on motorcycles followed by truckloads of women and children as officials announced over loudspeakers that they were expanding the volcano's "danger zone" for the second day in a row.

Even staff at the mountain's main monitoring post were told to move farther away from the glowing crater.

Mount Merapi, which means "Fire Mountain," is one of the world's most active volcanoes.

But even those who have dedicated a lifetime to studying it have been baffled by its erratic behavior since it burst back to life on Oct. 26 - an eruption that has been followed by more than a dozen other powerful blasts and thousands of volcanic tremors.

They'd earlier hoped that would result in a long, slow release of energy.

"But we have no idea what to expect now," said Surono, a state expert on volcanos, adding that he has never seen the needle on Merapi's seismograph working with such intensity.

The fear is that a new lava dome forming in the mouth of the crater will collapse, triggering a deadly surge of up to 1,800 degree Fahrenheit (1,000 degree Celsius) ash and gas - known to experts as pyroclastic flows - at speeds of 60 miles per hour (100 kilometers per hour).

More than 75,000 people living along Merapi's fertile slopes have been evacuated to crowded emergency shelters far from the crater, though some return to their villages during periods of calm to check on their livestock and homes.

More than 80 families live in Bronggang, the village hit just before midnight Friday, which is located 9 miles (15 kilometers) from the crater, well inside the danger zone.

It was not immediately clear why they hadn't been evacuated.

A 3-year-old girl was killed in the inferno, said Pangardi, a forensic expert at Sardjito hospital, which was treating the wounded.

Priyo Sigit Utomo, a paramedic, told MetroTV another 50 people had been brought in with injuries, most of them with severe burns.

It was not immediately clear if all were from the village.

Earlier Thursday, Merapi shot out towering clouds of ash with a thunder-like roar, dusting towns up to 150 miles (250 kilometers) away and forcing in motorists in Yogyakarta, 20 miles (30 kilometers) away, to switch on their headlights during the day.

Activity at the mountain has at times briefly forced airports in Yogyakarta and nearby Solo to close and the Transportation Ministry reiterated Thursday that flight paths near the mountain had been shut down for safety reasons. Heavy ash and volcanic debris has been known to affect visibility and clog engines.

Officials insisted, however, that a Qantas jetliner forced to make an emergency landing after one of its four engines failed over Batam, an island 800 miles (1,400 kilometers) to the west, was unrelated.

"There was no connection with Mount Merapi," said Bambang Ervan, a spokesman for the Transportation Ministry. "It was too far from the volcano - the sky over Singapore and Sumatra island is free of dust."

Merapi has killed at least 45 people since Oct. 26 - with seven new deaths added to the toll in the last 24 hours.

In 1994, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were torched, leaving up to 1,300 dead.

Subandrio, a state volcanologist, said Mount Merapi's "danger zone" was widened by three miles (five kilometers) on Thursday. With that order, people living in villages and emergency camps within 12 miles (20 kilometers) of the crater have to move.

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

The volcano's initial blast occurred less than 24 hours after a towering tsunami slammed into the remote Mentawai islands on the western end of the country, sweeping entire villages to sea and killing at least 428 people.

There, too, thousands of people were displaced, many living in government camps.

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