A spectacular volcanic eruption in Indonesia has killed three people and forced mass evacuations, disrupting long-haul flights and closing international airports yesterday.
Mount Kelud, considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes on the main island of Java, spewed red-hot ash and rocks high into the air late on Thursday night just hours after its alert status was raised.
Sunar, a 60-year-old from a village eight kilometres away in Blitar district, said his home collapsed after being hit with "rocks the size of fists".
"The whole place was shaking - it was like we were on a ship in high seas," he said. "We fled and could see lava in the distance flowing into a river."
A man and a woman, both elderly, were crushed to death after volcanic material that had blanketed rooftops caused their homes in the sub-district of Malang to cave in, National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said, while another elderly man died from inhaling the ash.
— Seputar Kampus (@seputarkampus) February 13, 2014 
Television pictures showed ash and rocks raining down on nearby villages as terrified locals fled in cars or motorbikes towards evacuation centres, and farmyard animals closer to the crater covered in ash. Media reports said the eruption unleashed volcanic material to up to 10 kilometres of the crater.
Muhammad Hendrasto, head of the country’s volcano monitoring agency, said Kelud erupted late on Thursday, about 90 minutes after authorities raised its status to the highest level. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
“It is spewing lava right now while gravel rain has fallen in some areas,” Hendrasto said. “We worry that the gravel rain can endanger people who are evacuating.”
Some 200,000 people were ordered to evacuate, though some families ignored the orders and others had returned home, with just over 75,000 now in temporary shelters, Nugroho said.
“A rain of ash, sand and rocks is reaching up to 15 kilometres” from the volcano’s crater, he said. “Sparks of light can be continuously seen at the peak.”
Three international airports were closed and the eruption darkened skies across a large swathe of the country’s most densely populated island. Transport ministry spokesman Bambang Ervan said Yogyakarta, Solo and Surabaya airports were closed due to reduced visibility and the dangers posed to aircraft engines by ash.
Virgin Australia said it had cancelled all its flights to and from Phuket, Denpasar, Christmas Island and Cocos Island on Friday.
Australian nurse Susanne Webster, 38, was on a late-morning Virgin flight from Sydney to Bali that was turned around while they were in Australian airspace.
“About two hours in, the pilot announced over in Indonesia there was a volcano that erupted and that we were turning the plane back,” she said.
A spokeswoman for Australian airline Qantas said that Friday flights between Jakarta and Sydney had been pushed back to Saturday. “Flight paths from Australia to Singapore have been altered as a result of the volcanic ash cloud in Java,” she said.
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The ash has blanketed the Javanese cities of Surabaya, Yogyakarta and Solo, where international airports have been closed temporarily, Transport Ministry director general of aviation Herry Bakti said, while Metro TV showed images of grounded planes covered in ash.
“All flights to those airports have been cancelled, and other flights, including some between Australia and Indonesia, have been rerouted,” Bakti said.
“We will reassess the situation tonight regarding reopening the airports, but at the moment, it’s too dangerous to fly anywhere near the plume.”
Tremors, not as powerful eruptions in coming days
First light brought clear the extent of the overnight explosive eruption at Mount Kelud. Booms from the mountain could be heard 130 kilometres away in Surabaya, the country’s second-largest city, and even further afield in Yogyakarta.
On the outskirts of Yogyakarta, authorities closed Borobudur - the world’s largest Buddhist temple, which attracts hundred of tourists daily - after it was also rained upon with dust from the volcano some 200 kilometres east.
At a temporary shelter in the village of Bladak, roughly 10 kilometres from the volcano’s crater, around 400 displaced people, including children, slept on the floor wearing safety masks.
The Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation said there was little chance of another eruption as powerful as Thursday night’s, but tremors around the volcano could still be felt on Friday as volcanic materials continued to blanket the rooftops of entire villages.
Communities within the affected 15-kilometre radius began clearing piles of grey ash as high as 5cm from roads, Nugroho said.
The National Search and Rescue Agency warned residents not to return home as lava was still flowing through some villages, while sulphur was lingering in the air in others.
Ash covered the ground in both cities and was still falling, according to witnesses and accounts on social media.
One report said Kelud had been rumbling in the weeks before the eruption.
In 1990, Kelud kicked out searing fumes and lava that killed more than 30 people and injured hundreds. In 1919, a powerful explosion that reportedly could be heard hundreds of miles away killed at least 5,160.
It is one of some 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia, one the world’s largest archipelago nations and which sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a belt of seismic activity running around the basin of the Pacific Ocean from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.
Earlier this month another volcano, Mount Sinabung on western Sumatra island, unleashed an enormous eruption, leaving at least 16 people dead.
Sinabung has been erupting on an almost daily basis since September, coating villages and crops with volcanic ash and forcing tens of thousands out of their homes.