Indonesia's most volatile volcano erupted Tuesday after scientists warned that pressure building beneath its dome could trigger the most powerful explosion in years. At least 18 people were killed, including a two-month-old baby, according to doctors and media reports.
Smoke poured out of Mount Merapi, obscuring its cone, according to footage from the private station, Metro TV. Police and volunteers were shown carrying ash-covered corpses, some wrapped in blankets and yellow body bags, to waiting vehicles.
Thousands of villagers started streaming off the 9,737-foot-high mountain as darkness fell Tuesday, crowding into makeshift emergency shelters with straw sleeping mats and bags of clothes and food.
Earlier, many had refused to budge, saying they wanted to tend to crops along volcano's fertile slopes and protect their homes against looters.
While there are fears the current activity could foreshadow a much more destructive explosion in the coming weeks or months, Gede Swantika, a government vulcanologist, said the mountain appeared to be releasing some pressure building up beneath the lava dome.
"It's too early to know for sure," he said, adding a big blast could still be coming. "But if it continues like this for a while, we are looking at a slow, long eruption."
As they contended with the volcano, Indonesian officials were also trying to assess the impact of Monday's 7.7-magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, about 800 miles from Merapi. The temblor caused aon a string of remote islands.
The fault that ruptured Monday on Sumatra island's coast also caused the 2004 quake and monster Indian Ocean tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries.
Though hundreds of disaster officials were unable to get to many of the villages on the Mentawai islands - reachable only by a 12-hour boat ride - they were preparing for the worst.
"We have 200 body bags on the way, just in case," said Mujiharto, who heads the Health Ministry's crisis center, shortly before announcing a five-fold increase in the death toll.
Subandriyo, the chief of vulcanologist monitoring Merapi from a nearby observation post, said the eruption began just before dusk Tuesday. A 15-minute thunderous rumble was followed by a huge burst of searing ash that shot hundreds of yards (meters) into the air.
Rocks and debris cascaded down the side of Merapi, which literally means Mountain of Fire.
Officials earlier said, by closely monitoring the volcano which lies on the main island of Java, some 310 miles southeast of the capital Jakarta they hoped to avoid causalities.
But the death toll was quickly climbing.
An infant died Tuesday when a mother ran in panic after the eruption started, said Mareta, a hospital worker who goes by only one name. As the child's tiny body was covered with a white blanket, his mother looked on, crying hysterically.
Three people at Panti Nugroho hospital succumbed to bad burns after being hit by a searing cloud of ash, said Agustinus Parjo, a spokesman. News portal Detik.com reported 14 other bodies were found in several houses in a mountainside village. It cited an official who visited the site. Metro TV, which showed authorities carrying bodies out of the homes, said 15 were pulled out.
There are more than 129 active volcanoes to watch in Indonesia, which is spread across 17,500 islands, but Merapi has long been considered one of the most volatile.
In 2006, an avalanche of blistering gases and rock fragments raced down the volcano and killed two people. A similar eruption in 1994 killed 60 people, and 1,300 people died in a 1930 blast.
This vast archipelago is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity due to its location on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.
The most recent eruption was. It had been dormant for four centuries before springing to life in August but has since quieted and refugees from its slopes have returned home.