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After 400 Years, Mount Sinabung Erupts


The eruption of an Indonesian volcano has claimed its first fatalities. It happened in recent days. Mount Sinabung has been erupting for about three months after 400 years of quiet. Nobody knows how bad this could get, but already the volcano is sending scalding ash a mile into the sky and it killed 14 people last weekend. Wall Street Journal reporter Ben Otto is on the line in Jakarta. Welcome to the program, sir.

BEN OTTO: Hi. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: What does the erupting volcano look like?

OTTO: It's a steep-sided stratovolcano so it towers above the villages and the villages aren't really up the side of it but on its flanks.

INSKEEP: We've seen photos of flows of lava, massive clouds of ash. It is a pretty awesome thing to contemplate, it seems.

OTTO: Usually it's less dramatic than that but it does erupt up to a dozen times a day and it's been doing that, daily, for about three months. Sometimes locals will gather in a field maybe eight or 12 kilometers away from the volcano and at night they'll just watch it trickle out bit by bit. But by and large, the most dramatic events have been these ash eruptions. They go up, you know, a mile into the sky and then these pyroclastic flows, which are the hot clouds of ash and rocks and gases that come down the flanks of the volcano a couple of kilometers.

INSKEEP: You just described people standing and watching the volcano, which is quite a sight. Is this how people were killed in recent days?

OTTO: Yeah. There's an evacuation zone that extends around the volcano and the people that were killed were mainly high school students and a couple of villagers and they ventured up the southeastern flank of the volcano to within three kilometers of the crater. And so they had ventured up there and that's when an eruption hit and a pyroclastic flow came barreling down the side of the mountain and they were caught in that and I think most of them killed instantly.

INSKEEP: Some people will be baffled by the idea of challenging the volcano in that way, but you're saying that this has been a regular thing over the last several months.

OTTO: Yeah. The danger is really deceptive. You know, when the ash erupts it just - it comes out of the volcano, very slowly builds into a cloud, and then if you're not downwind of it the ash just blows away. But when that happens you feel largely removed from it, except for the fact all around you everything is covered in gray ash and you've got a mask on. Everyone's got a mask on.

You can feel the grit in your teeth. By the end of the day your voice is hoarse. A lot of the villagers get permits to go back in and tend to their house and scrape ash off their corrugated tin rooftops. Since these deaths that has been - the authorities have restricted that access somewhat.

INSKEEP: Has enough rock and lava, of course, come out of that volcano that the landscape around the volcano is beginning to change?

OTTO: By and large, we haven't seen the Hawaii-style lava flows. But the ash in itself, it's been so persistent erupting every day for three months that it's coated the entire countryside. Up to eight kilometers from the volcano you'll find ash in these very green pastoral sort of idyllic villages. They're totally grayed out and they've turned into ghost towns.

I mean every now and then you'll see people up there to tend to their houses, but now they're just, they're very quiet, covered in gray. And, you know, just no one's there. Thousands and thousands of people - I think at last count there were just over 30,000 people living in evacuation centers.

I did talk to one woman who said that on the day she was evacuated in early November that she'd been up all night and there was tremor after tremor, some of them just minutes long. And then in the morning she could hear rocks whistling to the village. And she woke up and outside her chili and cabbage and different crops were covered in a centimeter of ash like snowfall.

INSKEEP: Ben Otto is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Thanks very much.

OTTO: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.