An experienced hiker who led a group of friends up Mount Ontake on Saturday says he should have trusted his intuition and called the trip off.
Three of his five companions died in the hail of rocks when the volcano erupted without warning.
Yasuo Suzuki, 57, from Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, was seriously injured by the eruption and had to be brought down by rescue crews.
He has been speaking about his grief and his feeling of responsibility.
“I was the one who could have canceled the trip,” Suzuki said in a weak voice.
He recalls the horror of realizing they were pinned down and that he was powerless to help.
“I couldn’t do anything,” he said. “Now I feel I’ve killed three people.”
He said he saw reports by the Meteorological Agency that small volcanic tremors had been rattling the mountain from mid-September, but on the morning of their hike, the trail was open and the agency was reporting Ontake as safe.
The six friends, all nature enthusiasts and members of a volunteer environmental protection team, met up and began the climb.
Three would not return.
Kazuo Wakabayashi, 66, from Matsumoto, was a “cheerful person who would make everyone laugh,” Suzuki recalls. He was a founding member of the group.
“He would say ‘I’m so old, I can’t remember the names of the flowers,’ but he was so passionate about the plants and would often talk about them,” said Suzuki.
Yasuo Ito, 54, joined the group last May. Neighbors in Tomi, Nagano Prefecture, said Ito lived there with his wife and three children.
Suzuki recalls Ito as a deeply thoughtful person. Ito had e-mailed him several times to apologize for a delay in confirming that he would join the hike.
The third victim was Kazumasa Yokota, 61, whose death was only confirmed some time afterward.
All were presumably bludgeoned to death by flying rocks.
Since the group had not climbed Mount Ontake before, Suzuki, who was the most experienced of the six, remained at the rear.
He recalls how the friends pointed out flowering alpine plants as they climbed, and how they were on the verge of reaching the summit at about 11:52 a.m. That was the moment when Suzuki noticed a fast-growing cloud of what looked like smoke off to their left.
He had an upmarket single-lens reflex camera and tried to take a photo, but before he could shoot, the cloud engulfed them.
“Everyone run!” Suzuki yelled as he cowered against a rock. The volcano thundered, filling the sky with rocks.
He recalled another climber saying he could feel the heat.
Suzuki does not know what happened next. He presumes he fainted. When he came to, he was inside a mountain hut, one of several wooden shelters near the summit that catered to hikers with food and lodging.
As authorities try to identify the victims, putting name upon name to the tragic toll, a husband-and-wife couple were apparently among them.
Hiromi Inooka, 42, had hiked to the summit with her 45-year-old husband. Her body was found but he remains missing, presumed dead. They leave a son, a high school second-grader.
“They were so good to each other,” said a neighbor in her 50s from Kai, Yamanashi Prefecture, where the couple lived.
The neighbor said both husband and wife were hearing-impaired but that their condition had not affected their daily lives and they would enjoy climbing on their days off.
“I was hoping they would come back safe and sound,” the woman said.
The couple’s car was found in a parking lot by officials from Kiso, Nagano Prefecture, after a colleague of Hiromi’s reported she had been planning to climb Ontake.