An Indonesian volcano that had been quiet for four centuries shot a powerful new burst of hot ash more than 10,000 feet in the air today, sending frightened residents fleeing to safety for the second time this week.
The tremor from the eruption – the strongest so far – could be felt five miles away.
The eruption of Mount Sinabung on Sunday and Monday – which caught many scientists off guard – forced 30,000 people living along its fertile slopes in North Sumatra province to evacuate to cramped emergency shelters in nearby towns.
Many had started returning to their mountainside homes as activity started to wane, saying they wanted to tend to their vegetable farms and rice fields and to reopen small businesses.
A new alert was issued several hours before Friday’s blast.
Some people trudged back down the slopes, carrying blankets, clothes and food, but others insisted on staying, even after the new explosion, which caused the entire mountain to shake for five minutes.
The air was thick with the smell of sulphur and, despite a soft drizzle, heavy smoke limited visibility to just a few yards. Some small domestic hopper flights had to be diverted, according to Bambang Ervan, the transportation ministry’s spokesman.
International air travel was unaffected.
Mount Sinabung had last erupted in 1600, and government vulcanologists acknowledged they had made no efforts before the mountain started rumbling last week to sample gases or look out for rising magma or other signs of seismic activity.
They were too busy with more than 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, a seismically charged region because of its location on the so-called Ring of Fire - a series of fault lines stretching from the western hemisphere through Japan and south-east Asia.
They said from now on they will be watching it very closely.
“It’s still going off, even now ,” said Surono, who heads the nation’s volcano alert centre. “You can’t see it because of the heavy fog around the crater, but according to our seismic recorder, there are still small eruptions.”
There are fears that current activity could foreshadow a much more destructive explosion in a few weeks or months, though it is possible that the mountain will go back to sleep after letting off steam.