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Image: Villagers carry a woman as they flee their homes following another eruption of Mount Merapi
Irwin Ferdiansyah  /  AP
Villagers carry a woman as they flee their homes following another eruption of Mount Merapi in Klaten, Indonesia, Friday.
updated 11/5/2010 9:28:32 PM ET 2010-11-06T01:28:32

A surge of searing gas raced down the sides of Mount Merapi on Friday, smothering houses, cattle and villagers in its path. The death toll after the volcano's largest eruption in a century soared to 122.

The worst hit village of Bronggang lay nine miles (15 kilometers) from the fiery crater, just on the perimeter of the government-delineated "danger zone." Crumpled roofs, charred carcasses of cattle and broken chairs — all layered in white ash and soot — dotted the smoldering landscape.

The zone has since been expanded to a ring 12 miles (20 kilometers) from the peak, bringing it to the edge of the ancient royal capital of Yogyakarta, which has been put on its highest alert.

Sri Sucirathasri said her family had stayed in their Bronggang home Thursday night because they hadn't been told to leave.

They awoke in the dark as the mountain let out thunderous claps and tried desperately to outrun the flows, which reached speeds of 60 mph (100 kph), on a motorbike. Her mother, father and 12-year-old sister, Prisca, left first, but with gray ash blocking out any light, they mistakenly drove into — rather than away from — the volcano's dangerous discharge.

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The 18-year-old Sri went looking for them when she heard her mother's screams, leaving at home an older sister, who died when the house became engulfed in flames.

"It was a safe place. There were no signs to evacuate," said Sri, a vacant gaze fixed on Prisca, whose neck and face are burned a shiny ebony, her features nearly melted away.

Their mother is still missing. Their father, whose feet and ankles are burned, is being treated in another ward.

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"I don't know what to say," she whispers when asked if she blames officials for not warning the family. "Angry at who? I'm just sad. And very sick."

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

With each new eruption, scientists and officials have steadily pushed the villagers who live along Merapi's fertile slopes farther from the crater. But after initially predicting earlier eruptions would ease pressure under the magma dome, experts who have spent a lifetime studying the volcano now say the don't know what to expect.

Scientists can study the patterns of volcanoes, but their eruptions are essentially unpredictable, as Merapi's increasingly intense blasts have proved.

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On Friday, the towering plumes of ash rained dust on windshields of cars 300 miles (480 kilometers) away, although a rain near the mountain in the afternoon turned much of it to sludge. Bursts of hot clouds occasionally interrupted aid efforts, with rescuers screaming, "Watch out! Hot cloud!"

Video: Death toll soars from Indonesian volcano (on this page)

The eruption released 1,765 million cubic feet (50 million cubic meters) of volcanic material, making it "the biggest in at least a century," said state volcanologist Gede Swantika as plumes of smoke continued to shoot up more than 30,000 feet (10,000 meters).

Soldiers pulled at least 78 bodies from homes and streets blanketed by ash up to a foot (30 centimeters) deep Friday, raising the overall toll to 122, according to the National Disaster Management Agency.

With bodies found in front of houses and in streets, it appeared that many of the villagers died from the blistering gas while trying to escape, said Col. Tjiptono, a deputy police chief.

"The heat surrounded us and there was white smoke everywhere," said Niti Raharjo, 47, who was thrown from his motorbike along with his 19-year-old son while trying to flee.

Slideshow: Indonesian eruption (on this page)

"There was an explosion ... and it got worse, the ash and debris raining down," he said from a hospital.

The living — with clothes, blankets and even mattresses fused to their skin by the 1,400-degree Fahrenheit (750-degree Celsius) heat — were carried away on stretchers following the first big explosion just before midnight.

More than 150 injured people — with burns, respiratory problems, broken bones and cuts — waited to be treated at the tiny Sardjito hospital, where the bodies piled up in its morgue, and two other hospitals.

Despite being at the foot of Indonesia's deadliest volcano, Yogyakarta has only one burn unit — at Sardjito. The facility is limited to 10 beds, though, and so turns away any patient without facial burns or whose body is burned less than 40 percent, according to Sigit Priohutomo, a senior official at Sardjito.

"We're totally overwhelmed here!" hospital spokesman Heru Nogroho said.

More than 100,000 people living on the mountain have been evacuated to crowded emergency shelters, many by force, in the last week. Some return to their villages during lulls in activity, however, to tend to their livestock.

They were told to stay away Friday. The government also announced an $11 million program to buy the cows on the mountain to keep farmers off its slopes, and to provide compensation for animals lost in the eruptions.

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.

While Friday's explosion was the largest in volume in a century, an eruption at Merapi in 1930 killed many more — 1,300.

Even that toll pales in comparison to other volcanoes in the region: Indonesia's Krakatoa killed at least 36,000 people in 1883, in an eruption that could be heard 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) away and blackened skies region-wide for months.

When the Philippines' Mount Pinatubo exploded in 1991 after a 500-year slumber, about 800 people died as the billions of tons of volcanic debris poured from the cone, erasing entire farm communities and altering the world's climate.

The May 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens caused the volcano's north flank to collapse, triggering the largest landslide ever recorded. The blast killed 57 people, flattened 230 square miles (596 square kilometers) of forests and blew 1,300 feet (400 meters) off the peak.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Death toll soars from Indonesian volcano

Photos: Volcano erupts

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  1. Mount Merapi volcano spews ash as a villager collects her valuables from the ruins of her house at Kali Tengah village in Sleman, near Yogyakarta on Monday, November 15, 2010. Mount Merapi volcano, on the outskirts of Yogyakarta city in central Java, began spewing searing hot gas and ash clouds more than two weeks ago, and has killed close to a hundred people, disrupted flights and displaced more than 320,000 people. (Sigit Pamungkas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A man cleans the roof of his house from volcanic ash folllowing the eruption of Mount Merapi in Muntilan, Indonesia, on Nov. 15. (Slamet Riyadi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volcanic ash from the Mount Merapi volcano covers a dead farm animal in the Indonesian village of Cangkringan on Nov. 14. (Clara Prima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A classroom of a school remains covered with volcanic ash due to the eruption of Mount Merapi in Cangkringan, Indonesia, on Nov. 14. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Workers clear volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Merapi volcano covering the Borobudur Temple in Muntilan of Indonesia's central Java province on November 13. (Sigit Pamungkas / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mount Merapi volcano erupts, as seen from Mungkid village in Magelang in Indonesia's central Java province on Nov. 13. (Andry Prasetyo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Indonesian army soldiers search for victims of the eruption of Mount Merapi in Cangkringan, Indonesia on Nov. 13. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Children play on used clothes which will be distributed to evacuees at a temporary shelter for those affected by the eruption of Mount Merapi in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, on Nov. 10, 2010. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Indonesian soldiers search for victims killed in the eruption of Mount Merapi in Cangkringan, Indonesia, on Nov. 10, 2010. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Search and rescue team members from Yogyakarta carry a victim of Merapi volcano's eruption in Sleman on November 8, 2010. (Clara Prima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Motorists ride on a road covered with ash as Mount Merapi spews volcanic material into the air near Wukirsari, Indonesia, Monday, Nov. 8. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A farmer walks through his corn field covered in volcanic ash in Muntilan, Indonesia on, Nov. 8. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Muntilan, Magelang, in Indonesia, is covered with ash from Mount Merapi’s eruption, Nov. 8. International flights to Indonesia's capital Jakarta returned to normal Monday, officials said, a day ahead of a visit by US President Barack Obama. (Sonny Tumbelaka / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Volunteers rescue burned victims of the Mount Merapi eruption on Nov. 5 in Argomulyo village,which was devastated by deadly clouds of volcanic ash. (Susanto / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Lightning strikes as Mount Merapi erupts, spewing towering clouds of hot gas and debris, as seen from Ketep village in Indonesia's central Java province on Nov. 6. (Beawiharta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. An elderly woman with injuries sustained from Mount Merapi's latest eruption arrives at Sarjito hospital in Yogyakarta Nov. 5. (Dwi Oblo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A woman prays in a temporary shelter at Maguwoharjo Stadium in Yogyakarta, Nov. 5. (Beawiharta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

    Victims of Mount Merapi eruption lie covered in volcanic ash as rescuers search for others in a village that was hit by pyroclastic flow in Argomulyo, Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Nov. 5. A deadly surge of blistering gases cascaded down the slopes of Indonesia's most volatile volcano Friday, torching houses in one mountainside village and triggering a chaotic midnight evacuation. (Gembong Nusantara / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Kitchen utensils are covered with volcanic ash in the village of Argomulyo on Nov. 5. (Clara Prima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. An Indonesian policeman pats a surviving monkey after the village was sweept by Mount Merapi's 'Wedus Gembel' hot gas clouds, Cangkringan, Indonesia on Nov. 5. (Adi Weda / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A view from a domestic flight from Denpasar to Yogyakarta shows a plume of gas and ash billowing some six miles high from the Mount Merapi volcano during an eruption on November 4. Volcanologists said the "high intensity" eruption was the strongest yet from the 9,616-foot Mount Merapi. (Clara Prima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Residents flee on motorcycle under volcanic ash fall during evacuation from a village in Klaten district, Nov. 3, after Mount Merapi erupted. Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano exploded in a frightening new eruption of lava and red-hot rocks Wednesday, sparking panic and forcing the government to order new evacuations. Scientists said the 9,616-foot mountain in central Java erupted with more force than last week's blasts that killed 36 people, spewing huge clouds of searing gas into the sky. (Farras / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. An Indonesian woman cries as volcano Merapi erupts in Klaten, Central Java, Indonesia, Nov. 3. Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano erupted again with renewed strength in its fourth eruption in eight days, as most villagers had already evacuated the area. At least 38 people were killed when the volcano first erupted last week, and about 70,000 people fled to shelters. (Mohammad Ali / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Mount Merapi volcano spews smoke as seen from Sidorejo village in Klaten, near the ancient city of Yogyakarta, on Nov. 3. The latest eruption was the biggest yet, causing evacuees to move their shelters even further from the mountain. (Beawiharta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Volcanic ash emits steam on a channel near the slope of Mount Merapi in the Sleman district on Nov. 3. (Sonny Tumbelaka / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. A young boy looks out from a truck window as they evacuate Umbulharjo village to a safer place on Nov. 3. (Adi Weda / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. People evacuate from Umbulharjo village, Sleman, Indonesia, as Mount Merapi erupts on Nov. 3. (Adi Weda / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. People watch Mount Merapi spewing volcanic materials in Deles on Nov. 2. (Binsar Bakkara / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Residents of Balerante village prepare to flee, Nov. 1, as Mount Merapi spews smoke and ash. Indonesia's most active volcano claimed at least 36 lives the week before. (Adek Berry / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Villagers escorted by police carry a suspected looter caught in an abandoned village on Nov. 1 near Mount Merapi. (Arya Bima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. This cemetery in Kinah Rejo is seen covered with ash on Oct. 28. (Adek Berry / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Police officers and volunteers carry the coffin of a victim of the Mount Merapi eruption during a mass burial in Sleman on Oct. 28. (Beawiharta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Volunteers search for victims of the Mount Merapi eruption at Kinahrejo village on Oct. 27. (Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Indonesian women weep after learning that their relatives were killed in the Mount Merapi eruption on Oct. 27. (Irwin Fedriansyah / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Volcanic ash covers the interior of a house in a village badly hit by the Mount Merapi eruption on Oct. 27. (Gembong Nusantara / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Residents displaced by the eruption of Mount Merapi queue for food in Sleman on Oct. 27. (Adek Berry / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. A rescuer visits a village hit by pyroclastic flows from the eruption of Mount Merapi on Oct. 27. (Trisnadi / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. People in Kaliurang village run for safety after Mount Merapi erupted on Oct. 26. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono flew back from Hanoi, where he had been due to take part in a summit of Asian leaders, to oversee relief efforts for the Merapi eruption and Sumatra tsunami. (Beawiharta / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. The Mount Merapi volcano spews thick smoke on Oct. 26. (Clara Prima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
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    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
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  1. Image: Mount Merapi volcano spews ash as a villager collects her valuables from the ruins of her house at Kali Tengah village in Sleman
    Sigit Pamungkas / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (39) Indonesian eruption - Volcano erupts
  2. Image: Tsunami aftermath
    Mast Irham / EPA
    Slideshow (16) Indonesian eruption - Tsunami

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