Mounting death toll feared from Mount Sinabung volcano eruption
Indonesian officials searched through thick ash for bodies yesterday after Mount Sinabung volcano erupted, killing at least 15 people, with the only sign of life a mobile phone ringing inside an abandoned bag.
Scorching clouds engulfed victims during the eruption on Saturday, leaving rescuers with little hope of finding survivors as they searched through ash up to 30 centimetres thick.
About 170 people, including from the military and police, armed with chainsaws and oxygen apparatus spread out through apocalyptic-like destruction in Sukameriah village, officials said.
Sukameriah, just 2.7 kilometres from Sinabung's crater, is located in the "red zone" around the volcano, where human activities are strictly banned, disaster official Tri Budiarto said. Residents had been evacuated.
"It's very dangerous and completely out of bounds. But many of the tourists still secretly went to the area to take photographs," Budiarto added.
The first team to enter the village emerged 15 minutes later empty-handed.
Watch: Rescuers hard at work after Indonesia volcano eruption
"There's no sign of human life. All the crops were gone. Many houses were damaged and those still standing were covered in thick white ash. It was hard to walk in ash which nearly reached my calves," Gito, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said.
"We didn't find bodies but we picked up a bag belonging to one of the victims. The cellphone was ringing," he added.
Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, was unable to put a figure to the number of people still missing, but said there was a "chance" that the death toll might rise.
Officials said finding survivors was unlikely.
"I doubt it would be possible for anyone to survive the heat clouds yesterday. So far, we have not found any more bodies," said Lieutenant Colonel Asep Sukarna, who led the search operation.
The volcano on the western island of Sumatra started erupting in September, but on Saturday spewed hot rocks and ash 2,000 metres into the air.
Fourteen people - mainly local tourists, including four high school students on a sightseeing trip - were killed by lethal heat clouds that had cascaded down the volcano.
Officials warned that the threat of more searing heat clouds and weather conditions may affect search operations.
Mount Sinabung is one of 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia that straddle major tectonic fault lines, known as the Pacific Ring of Fire.