JAKARTA, Indonesia — The death toll from the sudden eruption of an active volcano on Indonesia’s Sumatra Island rose to 15, officials said Sunday, as toxic clouds of hot ash hampered search-and-rescue teams looking for more victims and survivors.
Among the victims from the volcanic activity Saturday in North Sumatra province were local residents checking on their homes and a journalist
, said Yopie Haryadi, a spokesman for Indonesia’s National Search and Rescue Agency.
The teams resumed searching Sunday but were forced to stop and take cover when sirens activated to warn that the area around the volcano, Mount Sinabung, was not safe. One of three people injured during Saturday’s eruptions died in a hospital, Yopie said. Officials have warned that the volcano could erupt again and that the death toll could rise if people ignored warnings and returned home.
The bodies of the first 14 victims were recovered Saturday, Yopie said.
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“No one is reported missing, but we don’t know for sure,” he said. “Sometimes people can come and go to check on their homes. We will try to search again, but we have to wait until the situation is clear, given the hot clouds.”
He said the first 14 victims were found in the village of Suka Meriah, within a 3-mile exclusion zone around the volcano’s crater. Four high-school students who died were in the disaster area distributing aid on behalf of the Indonesian Christian Students Movement, according to a reporter at the scene.
About 30,000 people were evacuated from the area in the weeks after Mount Sinabung resumed erupting in November.
In January, the volcano was erupting dozens of times a day, but it had quieted in recent days. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono visited the disaster zone Jan. 23 to comfort displaced residents camped out in evacuation centers and to discuss reconstruction efforts.
On Friday, authorities in North Sumatra allowed nearly 14,000 people living outside the danger zone to return home after volcanic activity decreased, said Parlindungan Harahap, a reporter for Sumut Pos, the newspaper in the provincial capital, Medan. Others living close to the peak have been returning home during the past four months despite the dangers.
On Sunday afternoon, officials from the National Board for Disaster Management appeared on national television to deny reports that the agency had authorized evacuees to return home, saying they had placed warning notices and posted guards at access points to Mount Sinabung’s slopes. Some residents, however, have ignored the warnings and used small, unguarded roads to return to check on their property in recent days.
On Saturday, a series of huge blasts and eruptions from the 8,530-foot volcano sent lava and rock flows up to nearly 3 miles away, according to news reports. Local television reports during the weekend showed giant gray clouds cloaking Mount Sinabung’s crater, farms and roads around the volcano covered in ash and panicked local residents running away from plumes of smoke.
TV news footage showed people bringing the bodies of some of the 14 victims down the mountain in makeshift rescue vehicles and on motorbikes.
After Saturday’s eruptions, all those who had been allowed to return home Friday were ordered back into evacuation centers, The Associated Press reported.