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Volcano eruption shuts Bali airport for second day, stranding tens of thousands

KARANGASEM, BALI, INDONESIA – NOVEMBER 27: Mount Agung spews volcanic ash into the sky at night on November 27, 2017 in Karangasem, Island of Bali, Indonesia. Indonesian authorities raised the state of alert to its highest level for the volcano, Mount Agung, after thick ash started shooting thousands of meters into the air with increasing intensity. Based on reports, as many as 100,000 villagers will need to leave the expanded danger zone while tens of thousands of tourists have been stranded due to airport closures. (Photo by Andri Tambunan/Getty Images)

KARANGASEM, Indonesia — A volcano gushing towering columns of ash over an Indonesian tourist island closed the Bali international airport for a second day Tuesday, disrupting travel for tens of thousands, as authorities renewed their warnings for villagers to evacuate.

Mount Agung has been hurling clouds of white and dark gray ash about 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) above its cone since the weekend and lava is welling in the crater, sometimes reflected as an orange-red glow in the ash plumes. Its explosions can be heard about 12 kilometers (7 1/2 miles) away.

The local airport authority said Tuesday that closure for another 24 hours was required for safety reasons. Volcanic ash poses a deadly threat to aircraft, and ash from Agung is moving south-southwest toward the airport. Ash has reached a height of about 30,000 feet as it drifts across the island.

Indonesia’s National Disaster Mitigation Agency raised the volcano’s alert to the highest level Monday and expanded an exclusion zone to 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the crater in places from the previous 7 1/2 kilometers. It said a larger eruption is possible, though a top government volcanologist has also said the volcano could continue for weeks at its current level of activity and not erupt explosively.

Agung’s last major eruption in 1963 killed about 1,100 people.

Authorities have told 100,000 people to leave their homes, though as of Monday tens of thousands stayed because they felt safe or didn’t want to abandon livestock.

“Authorities will comb the area to persuade them,” agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said at a news conference Monday. “If needed we will forcibly evacuate them.” About 25,000 people already have been living in evacuation centers since September when an increase in tremors sparked concerns.

Lava rising in the crater “will certainly spill over to the slopes,” Sutopo said.

Villager Putu Sulasmi said she fled with her husband and other family members to a sports hall that is serving as an evacuation center.

“We came here on motorcycles. We had to evacuate because our house is just 3 miles from the mountain. We were so scared with the thundering sound and red light,” she said.

The family had stayed at the same sports center in September and October when the volcano’s activity was high but it didn’t erupt then. They had returned to their village about a week ago.

“If it has to erupt, let it erupt now rather than leaving us in uncertainty. I’ll just accept it if our house is destroyed,” she said.

The closure of the airport has stranded tens of thousands of travelers. More than 400 flights were canceled on Monday and nearly 60,000 travelers affected, an airport spokesman said.

Bali is Indonesia’s top tourist destination, with its Hindu culture, surf beaches and lush green interior attracting about 5 million visitors a year.

A Chinese tour service, Shenzhen PT Lebali International, had about 20 groups totaling 500 to 600 travelers from the Chinese cities of Wuhan, Changsha and Guangzhou in Bali, according an executive, Liao Yuling, who was on the island.

“They are mostly retirees or relatively high-end, so they don’t say they are especially anxious to rush home,” she said by telephone.

Liao said if the airport did not open Tuesday, buses and ferries would be arranged to take travelers to Surabaya on Java, where the company’s charter flights could pick them up.

“We are not really affected, because the volcano is too far away,” said Liao. “We only can say we saw pictures of it on television.”

Indonesia’s Directorate General of Land Transportation said 100 buses were being deployed to Bali’s international airport and to ferry terminals to help travelers stranded by the eruption.

The agency’s chief, Budi, said major ferry crossing points have been advised to prepare for a surge in passengers and vehicles. Stranded tourists could leave Bali by taking a ferry to Java and then traveling by land to the nearest airports.

Ash has settled on villages and resorts around the volcano and disrupted daily life outside the immediate danger zone.

“Ash that covered the trees and leaves is very difficult for us because the cows that we have cannot eat,” said Made Kerta Kartika from Buana Giri village. “I have to move the cows from this village.”

Indonesia sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and has more than 120 active volcanoes.