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Avoiding Eruptions – While Covering Them

It took a long time and a lot of persistence to get to the summit of the most active volcano in Indonesia. The trip down came quicker – and went faster than I would have liked. Clearly, I lived to tell the tale – and the biggest personal risk to my well-being came from an eruption of ire among my compadres. More on this in a moment…

There is back-story for the back-story on this adventure in electronic journalism, but I will cut to the fun part of the chase – notwithstanding the fascinating intricacies and intrigue associated with attempting to obtain an Indonesian journalist visa. Suffice to say shooter/editor David Waters and I didn’t need no stinkin’ special visa to get the job done.

At 9,700 feet above sea level, Mount Merapi looms over the city of Yogyakarta – posing a constant (though usually low-grade) peril to the people who live beneath. But most of the time we were there, it was an invisble menace – enshrouded by clouds.

So it is a good thing it is wired for sound, so to speak. We saw the evidence of this on our first stop after landing at JOG, meeting our peerless producer for this project, Will Carless, grabbing some coffee and negotiating the narrow, chaotic, teeming streets of Yogya to reach the volcano command center and the nation’s chief volcanologist: Surono.

In Indonesia, you don’t have to be a rock star to have a solo sobriquet. Matter of fact, many people here have only one name. But even if that were not the case, Surono would be in the same strata with Madonna and Cher. He is a rock star, quite literally.

When I met him, he was banging away on his BlackBerry and chain-smoking American cigarettes while pacing around a paneled room outfitted with seismograph drums, computer screens and TV monitors. The latter simply showed the inside of a cloud bank.

“Every day Merapi is very, very cloudy,” Surono confided, “so we have never seen an eruption. I just look at seismograph.”

The seismograph sheets look like EKG printouts. The graphs Surono saved from the big eruption events were covered with wildly swinging lines – tantamount to a heart attack the size of a mountain, I suppose.

High on my “Dreamovision” storyboard for this piece were some aerials of Merapi – which would allow us to get some b-roll of the cratered summit. I figured Surono was the key to making this happen. If he wanted to see Merapi with his own eyes, maybe he would come with us – and grease the skids. You know, he gets us past the rope line – I pay the cover charge. Win-win in my mind and I was reasonably optimistic it could happen (provided the weather cleared).

Surono wasn’t the least bit interested in the idea. I pushed – but he was hard-over. When we asked him if we could shadow one of his scientists as they ventured out in the field, he also told us to talk to the hand. In fact, he refused to say or do anything that would put us inside his evacuation zone. We were on our own if we wanted to see what happened on top of Mount Merapi.

We added a very sharp translator/fixer – Fajar Radite – to our determined band of brothers and started ascending. Fajar is pursuing a degree in political science (Yogya is the Boston of Indonesia). His father is a famous, courageous journalist who wrote about the Suharto regime – and got thrown in jail on occasion when a story hit a nerve.

Fajar has the profession in his genes and thus would not take “no” for an answer as we repeatedly tried to push past the police roadblocks that marked Surono’s evacuation zone. At one point, we were asked to produce some ID showing whom we worked for. Oops. I had no such thing.

But I did buy the international data plan for my iPad. So I tapped in the URL for this web site, found my picture and a previous story – and showed it to the cop in charge. He was impressed. When I got the iPad, I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it – but I definitely did not envision that scenario.

In any case, even though the ice began to melt after I showed him my picture on the NewsHour site, he still wanted some sort of letter that we were legit. That prompted a spasm of e-mails back to the states to NewsHour Producers Jenny Marder (in D.C.) and Patti Parson (in Denver). It was 6:00 a.m. Sunday in Yogya – meaning it was 6:00 p.m. Saturday in D.C. and 4:00 p.m. in Denver. But no one complained about ruining their weekend.

In about half an hour, I had the letter in my inbox, which I promptly forwarded to the cop’s e-mail address. All of a sudden, we had an e-ticket to the top. Gotta love technology.

I was not sure what we would see at the summit of Merapi, but I would not have predicted the extent and nature of the devastation. A pyroclastic flow bears no resemblance to the slow moving oozy eruptions you see in Hawaii. It’s like a superheated, supersonic landslide. Walking through the devastated villages reminded me of being in St. Bernard’s Parish a few days after Katrina hit. Nothing was salvageable.

While we were there, capturing a scene that seemed from an alien planet, an emergency vehicle drove up – with people on board yelling and whistling. Next thing I knew, Messrs. Waters, Radite and Carless were gone like a freight-train. Turns out, they were all in the car yelling at me to run.

I was certain this was a false alarm. Fact is, if there really were an eruption, we would have already been toast. So I didn’t see the need to rush. It turns out, I was right. It was a false alarm – apparently a case of jittery nerves – not shaking seismometers. But when I got to the car, I saw how spun up they were.

“Maybe you have been doing this too long,” said Will as we sped down the mountain.

Maybe so. But what else could I do that would be as interesting and fun as this?

Find more from Miles O’Brien on our Science page.

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