Fear of Volcanic Ash Leads to Flight Cancellations to Jakarta

Just days before President Barack Obama’s long-awaited visit to Indonesia, some international flights were canceled over concerns about a volcano spewing ash hundreds of miles away.

Malaysia was preparing to airlift hundreds of citizens out of the country.

The notoriously volatile Mount Merapi unleashed nearly 2 billion cubic feet (50 million cubic meters) of gas, rocks and ash Friday – its most powerful eruption in a century.

Some 138 people have died on its slopes in the past two weeks, and authorities were still struggling Sunday to deal with those injured in the latest blast.

Obama is scheduled to touch down in Jakarta on Tuesday as part of a 10-day Asian tour. Since taking office, he has already twice postponed visits to Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where he spent four years as a child.

Paul Belmont, a U.S. Embassy spokesman, said there has been no talk yet of canceling. “But certainly, if the situation evolves into something like what we saw in Europe not long ago (when the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul forced closed airports for a week) it’s something we’d have to take seriously,” Belmont told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Though wildly popular here, a group of Islamic hard-liners held a rowdy but peaceful rally early Sunday in Jakarta criticizing his policies in the Middle East.

Lufthansa, EVA Air, and Philippine Air were among those that canceled flights Sunday to the capital, 280 miles (450 kilometers) west of Merapi. A handful – including Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific – were back in the air after suspending service Saturday.

The Royal Malaysian Air Force, meanwhile, was sending three C-130 transport planes to the city of Solo, 20 miles (30 kilometers) from the volcano, to pick up 664 citizens, many of them university students. The first batch was expected to return home on Sunday evening, the rest early Monday.

Merapi’s latest round of eruptions began Oct. 26, followed by more than a dozen other powerful blasts and thousands of tremors.

The volcano continued to rumble and groan over the weekend, at times spitting ash up to five miles (eight kilometers) in the air, dusting windshields, rooftops and leaves on trees hundreds of miles (kilometers) away.

Indonesian officials were scrambling to deal with the aftermath of Friday’s inferno, which killed more than 90 people. Bodies of villagers were frozen in their last moments, covered in a thick charcoal-like ash. Several photos taken by disaster management officials showed corpses welded together, as mothers and fathers clutched their children.

More than 200 others were injured, said Sigit Priohutomo, a senior official at Sardjito hospital, where some patients were admitted with burns covering up to 95 percent of their bodies.

The tiny hospital at the foot of the mountain has the only burn unit in area. But with just nine beds, it’s been forced to turn away all but the most severe cases.

With the on-again-off-again closure of nearby airports because of poor visibility, hospital officials said lots of supplies – ventilators, burn cream, oxygen masks and saline solution for IVs – were stuck in Jakarta.

Doctors said at least four patients still desperately needed ventilators, which protect scorched and inflamed lung tissue from ash still hanging in the air. Until they arrive, nursing students were pumping emergency respirators – normally only used in short ambulance trips – by hand.

Conditions were also grim at emergency shelters in the shadow of the volcano that were crammed with more than 200,000 people evacuated from the mountain.

With muddy floors and flies landing on the faces of sleeping refugees, many complained of poor sanitation, saying there were not enough toilets or clean drinking water.

The Indonesian government has put the city of Yogyakarta, 20 miles (30 kilometers) away from Merapi, on high alert.

The biggest threat is the Code River, which flows into the city of 400,000 from the 9,700-foot (3,000-meter) mountain and could act as a conduit for deadly volcanic mudflows that form in heavy rains.

Racing at speeds of 60 mph (100 kph), the molten lava, rocks and other debris, can destroy everything in their path. People living near the river’s banks have been advised to stay away.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanoes because it sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the Pacific Ocean.

Associated Press reporters Robin McDowell and Irwan Firdaus contributed to this report from Jakarta, and Sean Yoong contributed from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.