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Indonesia's volcano threatens city

Mount Merapi eruption kills 122, spews ash over Yogyakarta, causing lung problems.

Merapi eruption
A man wears a mask and goggles to protect himself from volcanic ashes raining down from Mount Merapi in Kaliurang, Indonesia. (Fauzan Ijazah/GlobalPost)

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.