A village that was hit by pyroclastic flows from Mount Merapi is covered in volcanic ash in Kinahrejo, Yogyakarta, in this October 27 photo. Mount Merapi erupted early last week after four years of dormancy, discharging pyroclastic flows and gray ash that fell like a shroud over everything left behind. Image Credit: AP

Mount Merapi, Indonesia: Searing gas avalanched down an Indonesian volcano with a thunderous roar, torching houses and trees and incinerating villagers as they fled Mount Merapi's worst eruption in a century. Dozens of bodies found yesterday raised the death toll to 122.

The injured, with clothes, blankets and even mattresses fused to their skin by the 750°C heat, were carried away on stretchers following the first big explosion just before midnight.

Soldiers joined rescue operations in hardest-hit Bronggang, a village 15 kilometres from the crater, pulling at least 78 bodies from homes and streets blanketed by ash up to one-foot 30-centimetres deep.

Crumpled roofs, charred carcasses of cattle, and broken chairs — all layered in white soot — dotted the smouldering landscape. Merapi was active throughout the day yesterday.

The volcano, in the heart of densely populated Java island, has erupted scores of times, killing more than 1,500 people in the last century alone. But tens of thousands of people live on its rolling slopes, drawn to soil made fertile by molten lava and volcanic debris.

Expanded danger zone

Its latest activity started on October 26. After yesterday's explosion, said by volcanologists to be the biggest since the 1870s, officials announced by loudspeaker that the mountain's danger zone had been expanded to 20km from the crater.

Previously, villages like Bronggang were still considered to be in the "safe zone."

"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.

"I saw people running, screaming in the dark, women so scared they fell unconscious," he said from a hospital where they were both being treated for burns.

"There was an explosion that sounded like it was from a war ... and it got worse, the ash and debris raining down."

The greatest danger posed by Merapi has always been pyroclastic flows, like those that roared down the southern slopes at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour.

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

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

"We're totally overwhelmed here!" said Heru Nogroho, a spokesman at Sardjito.

Despite earlier predictions that dozens of big explosions that followed the initial blast last week would ease pressure building up behind a magma dome, eruptions have been intensifying, baffling experts who have long monitored Merapi.

Plumes of smoke

In terms of the amount of volcanic material released — 50 million cubic metres, "it was the biggest in at least a century," said Gede Swantika, a state volcanologist, as plumes of smoke continued to shoot up more than 10,000 metres.

More than 100,000 people living along Merapi's fertile slopes 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.

Even scientists from Merapi's monitoring station were told they had to pack up and move down the mountain. They were scrambling to repair four of their five seismographs destroyed by the heavy soot showers.