Ontake rescuers recount helplessness in face of surreal scene of ash, victims buried alive


Rescue workers who witnessed the aftermath of Saturday’s eruption of Mount Ontake said they were tormented by a sense of helplessness and powerlessness before Mother Nature.

“I believe the victims had no time to escape,” recalled Hideki Shionozaki, 43, a rescue worker from the Nagano Fire Department who joined Monday’s operations near the peak to search for bodies buried under ash.

As Shionozaki and his team searched for the dead, they saw scenes beyond their imagination — all the world was gray; one buried corpse just had arms and legs jutting from the ash; some bodies were pressed between rocks and were hard to move.

Shionozaki’s team discovered six bodies Monday but were unable to carry them down the mountain, hampered by toxic gas and the ubiquitous ash.

The rescue workers therefore only attached “dead” tags to the bodies and continued their search, Shionozaki said. Removal of the bodies went to Ground Self-Defence Force helicopters.

The smell of hydrogen sulfide was everywhere, its density posing a threat to human life. The team members had to carry gas-measuring instruments, he said.

As of 4 p.m. Monday, the hydrogen sulfide density became too dangerous, forcing the day’s search to end.

GSDF Maj. Fumihiko Nakamura also spoke of the helplessness his team felt during their rescue operations.

With team members fully equipped — wearing goggles, masks and bullet-proof vests to prevent injury from falling rocks — his team took a trail from the village of Otaki to the summit.

But because of thick layers of ash as well as the toxic gas, the team could not reach the peak where bodies were still buried and was forced to retreat, Nakamura said.

Although the GSDF has special gas masks that allow rescue workers to operate under extreme situations, their supply is limited, the Defense Ministry said.

Roughly 550 police officers, firefighters and Self-Defense Forces personnel were taking part in the search and rescue operation.

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