A day after Indonesian authorities allowed thousands of locals to return to their homes under the slopes of Mount Sinabung volcano on claims its rumblings had lessened, the inevitable happened. Officials of rescue teams tasked to find survivors from Saturday's eruption now race amidst the rubble, but don't have much high hopes.
"I doubt it would be possible for anyone to survive the heat clouds on Saturday. So far, we have not found any more bodies," Lieutenant Colonel Asep Sukarna, who led the search operation, told AFP.
Authorities put the official death tally so far at 16. They believed the number of dead could still rise. Among those who died were a local television journalist, four high-school students and their teacher who were visiting the mountain to see the eruptions up close, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman, said.
Rescuers, armed with chainsaws and oxygen apparatus, worked to find survivors among 30-centimetre thick ashes in Sukameriah village, just 2.7 kilometres from Mount Sinabung's crater.
"There's no sign of human life. All the crops were gone. Many houses were damaged and those still standing were covered in thick white ash. It was hard to walk in ash which nearly reached my calves," rescuer Gito said.
Authorities allowed some 14,000 residents living outside a five-kilometre danger zone to return home on Friday because volcanic activity had decreased. But on Saturday from the 2,600-metre-high volcano rumbled, spewing lava and pyroclastic flows as far as 4.5 kilometres away.
Mr Gito said the only thing they found among the rumble was a mobile phone.
"We didn't find bodies but we picked up a bag belonging to one of the victims. The cellphone was ringing," he said.
Search and rescue operations had been halted on Sunday, as per the strict orders of the Indonesian volcanology agency.
"After two visits to the village, the volcanology agency recommended that we stop search for safety reasons. Visibility is low because of the thick smog and we could hear volcanic tremors," Mr Sukarna said.
They hoped to continue the search on Monday.
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