KISO, NAGANO PREF. – Rescue workers began airlifting more than two dozen bodies from the ash-blanketed peak of 3,067-meter Mount Ontake on the Nagano-Gifu prefectural border Monday morning as family members of the missing waited at a nearby elementary school.
At least 36 people are believed to have died, as rescuers found five more people who were presumably killed in Saturday’s eruption.
Eight victims — five men and three women — were transported by rescuers to the foot of the mountain early Monday, after four bodies were flown down on Sunday.
It remains unclear how the victims died, whether from toxic gases, suffocating ash, falling rocks or other causes.
Roughly 550 police, firefighters and Self-Defense Forces personnel joined rescue operations, but they halted the search on Monday afternoon due to toxic gas near the peak.
The National Police Agency said at least 63 people were injured. A number of others remained unaccounted for, some of whom had not notified officials they were climbing the mountain, the Nagano Prefectural Government said.
More than 230 climbers who were forced to shelter in local lodges overnight due to poor visibility had reportedly descended on their own by Sunday night.
The Meteorological Agency’s advisory panel on volcanic eruption prediction said the eruption was triggered by a “hydrovolcanic explosion,” in which high-pressure water vapor spouts after groundwater is heated by magma. The panel warned that another eruption could occur.
The agency also said the volcano could throw large rocks as far as 4 km from the crater, and that pyroclastic flows of hot gas and rock could occur.
The agency raised its eruption alert for Mount Ontake to three on a five-level alert system, which restricts entry to the mountain and those around it.
Scenes broadcast live on TBS TV showed SDF personnel carrying yellow body bags one by one to a helicopter that had landed in a relatively wide-open area of the now bleak landscape, its rotors still spinning.
The first bodies were flown to a nearby athletic field, its green grass and surrounding forested hills contrasting with Mount Ontake’s ash-gray peak in the background, a reduced plume still emerging from its crater.
There, they were transferred to white police vans, while two dozen officers struggled to hold up long blue tarps under the spinning rotors, to block the view of reporters gathered nearby.
Saturday’s eruption was the first fatal one in modern times at Mount Ontake, a popular climbing destination. A similar eruption occurred in 1979, but no one died.
Some of the bodies were found in a lodge near the summit and others were buried in ash up to 50 cm deep.
The mountain erupted shortly before noon at perhaps the worst possible time, with at least 250 people taking advantage of a beautiful fall Saturday to go for a hike. The blast spewed large white plumes of gas and ash high into the sky, blotted out the midday sun and blanketed the surrounding area in ash.
Survivors told media they were pelted by rocks. One man said he and others went into the basement of a lodge, fearing that the rocks would penetrate the roof. He covered himself with a futon for protection.
“Even small eruptions can cause major damage if people are around, as they get hit by rocks that come flying,” Nagoya University volcanologist Koshun Yamaoka said at a news conference Sunday.
Volcanoes can also kill by spewing toxic gases and lung-choking ash.
Shinichi Shimohara, who works at a shrine at the foot of the mountain, said he was on his way up Saturday morning when he heard a loud noise that sounded like strong winds followed by “thunder” as the volcano erupted.