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Archive for Sunday, November 7, 2010

Fear of volcanic ash cancels flights

Resources to treat burn patients scarce

November 7, 2010

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Villagers ride on a motorcycle Saturday as Mount Merapi spews volcanic materials in the background in Srumbung, Central Java, Indonesia.

Villagers ride on a motorcycle Saturday as Mount Merapi spews volcanic materials in the background in Srumbung, Central Java, Indonesia.

— International airlines fearful of volcanic ash canceled flights Saturday into Indonesia’s capital, while the closure of airports nearest Mount Merapi has delayed the arrival of burn cream and ventilators for those whose skin and lungs were singed by searing gases. The series of eruptions, including the deadliest in decades, has killed 138 people.

In the area’s only burn unit, one patient lies mummified in thick, white bandages from neck to toe, his face a patchwork of black and ashen splotches. He never blinks his milky gray eyes. The only sign of life is the shallow rising and falling of his chest.

He has little company: Of the 31 burn victims taken to Sardjito hospital, at the foot of the volcano, the burn unit has room for just nine. Of those, only eight get a ventilator.

With nearby airports closed because of poor visibility, hospital officials said lots of supplies — including burn cream, oxygen masks and saline solution for IVs — were stuck in Jakarta. Dr. Ishandono Dahlan said he needed at least four more ventilators to protect the delicate, inflamed lung tissue of patients from the ash hanging in the air. In the meantime, nursing students were pumping emergency respirators — normally only used in short ambulance trips — by hand.

Indonesia’s most volatile mountain unleashed nearly two billion cubic feet of gas, rocks and ash Friday that raced down its slopes at highway speeds, mowing down a slope-side village and leaving a trail of charred corpses in its path. Photos taken by a disaster management team afterward showed bodies frozen in their last moments, covered in a thick charcoal-like ash. Several showed bodies welded together, as mothers and fathers clutched their children.

The number of people killed by Mount Merapi in the last two weeks climbed to 138, according to Sigit Priohutomo, a senior hospital official. The volcano continued to rumble and groan Saturday, at times spitting ash up to five miles in the air, dusting windshields, rooftops and leaves on trees hundreds of miles away.

Just days before President Barack Obama’s visit to Indonesia, international carriers canceled flights to the capital, Jakarta, over concerns about the volcano, 280 miles away.

“The volcanic ash presence in the airways surrounding Jakarta could cause severe damage to our aircraft and engines which could impair the safety of our operations including passengers and crew,” said Azharuddin Osman, director of operations for Malaysia Airlines.

Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa and Etihad Airways also temporarily suspended flights, taking the national disaster international. Flights to Frankfurt, Abu Dhabi, Tokyo and Hong Kong, as well as many regional destinations, were among those affected.

Domestic flights were running normally, except for those going to airports near the volcano that shut.

The eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano in April forced the closure of most European airports for a week and led to the cancellation of over 100,000 flights.

Tia Wanti, an information officer at the Jakarta airport, implied Saturday’s move by airlines was premature, saying the dust wasn’t causing problems either in the skies above the airport or on its runways. About 10 percent of the 1,200 flights Jakarta handles a day were canceled.

The Indonesian government, meanwhile, has expanded a “danger zone” to a ring 12 miles from the peak, bringing it to the edge of the ancient royal capital of Yogyakarta, which has been put on its highest alert.

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