Watching, waiting as 'Fire Mountain' rumbles

Farmers work as their chilli plants are covered with ash in Gowok Sabrang village
Farmers work on dust-covered plants in Gowok Sabrang, a village on the slopes of the Mount Merapi volcano in Indonesia. Lava flows and clouds of hot gas have periodically erupted from the newly active volcano, one the world's most unstable.Dwi Oblo / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

JAVA, IndonesiaMount Merapi, one of the world's most active volcanoes, shot up a huge cloud of hot gas and ash on Wednesday after two days of relative calm.

Merapi, situated in one of the most populated areas on earth, has erupted numerous times over the years, most recently in 1994 when 60 people were killed by a gas cloud.

NBC News’ Fred Francis reports on the latest activity and how the volcano’s important role in region is holding some people back from leaving the danger zone.

Mount Merapi had been quiet for a few days and then it erupted again on Wednesday. How dangerous is the situation there now?
Vulcanologists believed that the eruption on Monday — which blew out a two-and-a-half miles wide cloud of deadly gas, ash and rock — was the eruption that everyone was waiting for.

And for 48 hours after there was nothing — and then today they had another eruption.

It wasn’t exactly an explosion, it was another one of these “gas clouds.” It moves at terribly fast speed — anywhere from 60 to 100 miles an hour. It is also super-heated – 950 degrees Fahrenheit — so it’s a killing cloud that the volcano throws off.

So, we don’t have these enormous fireworks shooting up into the sky so much as you have these clouds. The same thing happened 12 years ago and killed 60 people — just incinerated them. So, that’s the danger right now.

There is also the danger of a major explosion because in the last two weeks, Mount Merapi — which they call "Fire Mountain” here — has built up a lava dome more than 300 feet high on top of a 9,600 foot summit. The real fear is that lava dome will explode, shooting down rivers of lava on to the slope of Merapi. Right now that dome is tilted to the south where there are about 15 villages.

What is happening with the people who are living in the area?
There are very few people still here the actual slopes of the volcano. Meanwhile, they have tried to evacuated people in a four-mile area radius, but many won’t leave. And some come back during the day to tend to their cattle and farms and then go back to the shelters at night.

So, no matter what the authorities do, they can’t stop these people from going up to the mountain. And there is nothing they will be able to do — there is no such thing as running away — when one of the gas clouds shoots off from Merapi.

The volcano plays a major part in village life there, is that part of what is preventing people from leaving?
It’s interesting. Although 90 percent of the people here are Muslim, there are superstitions and myths about Mount Merapi that persist from many centuries ago. There is a mysticism about the mountain, people still pray to the spirits and give offerings to it. Prior to this latest volcanic activity, they would even drop livestock into the crater as offerings.

So the animistic beliefs are very strong here. Even while it’s been erupting, some of the villagers have been putting packages of rice and fruit in the nearby river to appease the gods.

In the middle of a very devout Islamic area, you have these centuries-old beliefs. It’s really fascinating.

It is those beliefs that have kept up to a 1,000 people still on the slopes of Mt. Merapi while it is spewing out rocks and lava. 

I spoke to two men tonight who were at the road block miles from the of the slope of the mountain when that gas cloud went up. They were scared and they came back on their motorcycles to the town. But then they said, “We think the spirits are going to protect the people around Merapi.”

So, there are those beliefs that the authorities have to deal with.

Where are the people that are leaving going?
The Red Cross is starting to move in now. The government of Indonesia issued the highest alert on Saturday, so all of the schools, churches, mosques, and military showed up rapidly to help people evacuate.

Many want to go home, but for the moment, they know that they can’t.

This is a nation of 220 million people with 129 active volcanoes — they call this region the “land of fire”  — with Merapi being the most active.

You can’t look at one of them without thinking of Krakatoa, which blew up in 1883 and sent ash, dust, and particles all over the world. And while vulcanologists don’t think that will happen in Merapi, they frankly don’t know.