Rescue efforts on Mt. Ontake were to resume later Sunday as hopes diminish that survivors will be found near the peak after Japan’s second-highest volcano erupted two days ago, the nation’s second natural disaster in a month.
Four of 31 victims found without a pulse were brought down from the mountain Sunday. Rescue work was halted in the afternoon due to the strong smell of sulfur, public broadcaster NHK reported. There has yet been no official confirmation that any of those 31 are dead.
Smoke and ash billowed from Ontake’s craters throughout Saturday as efforts continued to find missing hikers and bring down the injured. Takeo Kamata, 60, said a hot wind blew and it became difficult to breathe when the 3,067-meter (10,100-foot) volcano erupted shortly before noon on Sept. 27.
“Little volcanic rocks struck my legs and back. I thought, ‘If a big one hits me I’m dead,' “ Kamata said in an interview Saturday with public broadcaster NHK.“I was thinking of my family, saying ‘Sorry, goodbye.’ “
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Dozens who had sheltered overnight in mountain lodges descended to trailheads Saturday, some aided by police, fire and military rescue teams, their jackets coated with volcanic ash and their noses and mouths protected by white surgical masks.
Naofumi Miyairi, a spokesman for the Nagano prefectural police, declined to comment on the condition of the 31 found unresponsive on the mountainside beyond saying they were all in cardiac arrest and four had been brought down by helicopter. No additional information on the injured or missing was available as of 9 p.m. local time, Nagano police reported.
Public broadcaster NHK said local fire authorities in the region had retracted an announcement made on the evening of Sept. 27 that one woman had been found dead.
Ontake’s eruption comes five weeks after torrential rains triggered mudslides that killed at least 42 people in Hiroshima, where rescue workers are still seeking the remains of some missing victims.
Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures, offers scenic views of the 3,000-meter peaks of Japan’s Northern and Southern Alps.
Clear skies two days ago would have drawn an especially large number of hikers to the mountain’s popular trails, Arata Matsunaga, a staffer at the tourism association in Nagano prefecture’s Kiso town, said Saturday by phone. He declined to speculate how many may have been hiking in the area or whether the official count of missing hikers is likely to increase.
At least 35 people spent the night after the eruption on the Gifu side of the mountain, Takashi Sugishita, a spokesman for the prefectural disaster management office, said by phone.
“I thought I was going to die,” a female hiker who was near the volcano’s crater when it began belching smoke, ash and rocks told TV Asahi.
Seven climbers were flown off the mountain Saturday and some were hospitalized, NHK reported.
Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency said Saturday that 45 people remain unaccounted for. Figures on the number of missing have been compiled using reports from operators of mountain lodges, so only include those who stayed in the area overnight, Hiroshi Koizumi, a spokesman for Nagano’s crisis management section, said by phone.
About 550 police, fire and military personnel were aiding the rescue effort yesterday, NHK said.
The last previous fatalities from volcanic activity in Japan were 43 people killed in the 1991 eruption of Mt. Unzen, on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu, according to Charles Connor, a geophysicist specializing in volcanoes at the University of South Florida.
Television images of Ontake yesterday showed an ashy white haze flowing upward from the volcano’s craters, in stark contrast to the gray clouds that spread over the mountain’s contours soon after the eruption.
“Often activity continues for quite some time at these types of volcanoes,” Connor said. “It would not be unusual for this to be a relatively low volume sort of opening phase of a higher level of activity at the volcano.”
Japan lies on the so-called Ring of Fire, an arc of volcanoes and fault lines surrounding the Pacific Basin, and it sits at the three-way meeting point of the North American, Eurasian and Philippine Sea tectonic plates.
Ontake is one of more than 100 active volcanoes in Japan, according to the website www.volcanodiscovery.com, which dates the mountain’s first recorded eruption to 1979, when ash fell as far as 150 kilometers away.
The volcano erupted most recently in March 2007, according to the weather agency, which warned on its website of volcanic- ash falls in Gifu, Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures.
– With assistance from Chisaki Watanabe, Yuki Yamaguchi and Brian Fowler in Tokyo.