Indonesia's volcano threatens city

YOGYAKARTA, Central Java, Indonesia — Six-year-old Puji Lestari walked among the fumes and flip-flops of idling motorcyclists stuck in traffic on Jalan Kaliurang Saturday as gusts of hot wind turned the road beneath her bare feet into a swirling miasma of volcanic ash and brake pad-residue.

As motorists — almost all wearing face masks — filed through the patch that she comes to each day to sing a pitiful melody and beg for coins from drivers, Puji blinked hard and held a tiny, grubby hand to her uncovered mouth, trying to stop the raw dust from invading her lungs.

Her soiled yellow dress flapping in the back-draft from trucks and cars painted a uniform gray by the millions of tons of ash that have been unleashed on this city by repeated eruptions of Mount Merapi, Puji waited for the traffic to slow again.

“She won’t wear a mask,” said 22-year-old Harni, Puji’s mother, who sat nearby leaning her back against a gray tree in the shade. “Neither of my children will, and nor will I. It’s too uncomfortable! We feel like we can’t breathe.”

As the deadly Mount Merapi volcano that sits 18 miles north of Yogyakarta took a breather from erupting Saturday, the most noticeable reminder of Friday’s massive explosion — the biggest in more than a century — was the blanket of ash and dust that stubbornly refused to wash away with the light rain that has since fallen.

Indonesia was still recovering from Friday when the volatile mountain unleashed a surge of searing gas, rocks and debris that raced down its slopes at highway speeds, mowing down the slope-side village of Bronggang and leaving a trail of charred corpses in its path. At least 122 people near the eruption were killed.

The volcano continued to rumble and groan Saturday, at times spitting ash up to five miles in the air, dusting windshields, rooftops and leaves on trees hundreds of miles to the west.

Just days before U.S. President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit 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.

Among the other carriers temporarily suspending flights were Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia. Domestic flights were unaffected.

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

While most of Yogyakarta's residents have now clued into the fact that a dust mask is de rigeur for even the most vain of teenagers, the sheer intensity and volume of the ash has the provincial and national governments scrambling to assess air quality and take measures to avoid a second humanitarian crisis.

More than 160,000 people have now relocated to government-run shelters around the city and the death toll has risen to 109.

Dr. Nurlely Manurung, who was treating patients at a huge evacuation camp in Maguwoharjo stadium in the northeast of the city Saturday, said respiratory problems such as chest pains, runny noses and coughs are by far the most common ailments she’s been treating.

A spokeswoman at nearby Dr. Sardjito hospital said doctors there have treated several asthmatics and other vulnerable residents who have been seriously affected by the ash, though nobody has yet died from dust inhalation.

“Of course the government is aware that this is a very important issue,” said Tjandra Yogya Aditama, an official at Indonesia’s National Health Ministry.

Aditama said air quality tests carried out prior to Friday night’s huge explosion showed relatively normal results. Scientists are now working on collecting new data, he said. Meanwhile, the government has distributed hundreds of thousands of surgical masks to evacuees and residents, he said.

“Yeah, those masks are almost worthless,” said Dr. Ralph Delfino, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine’s School of Medicine. “I mean, I would still wear one, but people need proper masks.”

The volcanic dust itself is a two-headed beast.

Of primary health concern are minuscule particles of silica — essentially superfine sand or rock — that can enter the lungs and cause irritation and infection, particularly for people with existing respiratory problems. But also troubling is the high concentration of sulfuric acid that the volcanic eruptions have produced.

Sulfuric acid can burn and irritate eyes and skin, and may also serve as a noxious “coating” for the tiny silica particles being breathed in, forming a dual attack on people’s lungs.

Human lungs are generally pretty good at expelling silica and other matter, Delfino said. Tiny, hair-like structures called cilia usually “brush” foreign objects up and out of the lungs, where the matter is trapped in mucus and coughed up.

That process can irritate the lungs, however, and cause swelling and inflammation making it hard for the patient to breathe. Continued exposure to silica can also cause an illness called silicosis, which can be fatal.

In the stifling heat of Maguwoharjo stadium Saturday, 18-month-old Rifan Affandi has been coughing since his family fled Friday night’s eruption in panic.

Rifan and his mother Purwanti scrambled away from their previous evacuation camp in the dark chaos of Friday night as soil-like material rained down around them and the smell of sulfur poured down the mountain.

They now both have masks, but on Saturday morning, like most of the evacuees, had abandoned them to better enjoy the little breeze floating across the sea of people.

By Saturday afternoon, Mount Merapi had stood silent for almost 24 hours and the city of Yogyakarta had begun to regain some of the vibrancy for which it is famous.

Restaurants and shops buzzed with turquoise-blue masked faces and thousands of hoses sprayed the hot streets to tame the ash while residents waited, calmly, to see if the worst is now over.