NAGANO – Rescue workers resumed their search for bodies buried in ash at the summit of Mount Ontake on Wednesday but suspended it again within hours because of bad weather.
The Sept. 27 eruption has left 56 people dead and seven missing. It was Japan’s worst volcanic disaster in almost 90 years.
Snow has fell, and rain was expected later on Wednesday afternoon. There are fears that precipitation might turn the thick layer of ash and loose rocks into a sweeping mudslide.
The search was suspended at around 11 a.m. to reduce the risk to rescue teams. The search has been called off frequently since it first began.
On Monday teams halted their work as Typhoon Vongfong approached. It unleashed 118 millimeters of rain in the vicinity of Ontake, the local weather observatory said.
Wednesday’s search was considered crucial, as weather conditions are now changing rapidly as winter approaches, meaning the search is becoming a race against time.
“Today is a crucial day. We will do our utmost to find those who remain missing,” a Self-Defense Forces official said as the search resumed early in the morning.
There were about 1,900 Nagano police, firefighters and Ground Self-Defense Force troops involved in the search on Wednesday, double the number who took part in earlier searches.
As the typhoon left Japan, ground troops and helicopter crews returned to the volcano’s upper reaches to scour areas that had not been searched, such as wooded areas just off the mountain trails.
When the operation was suspended on Wednesday, rescue workers expressed their regret.
“Today’s search was massive, and we were all determined (to do it well),” said a GSDF rescue worker. “The weather turned worse than we had expected.”
The prefecture’s emergency response headquarters reported a centimeter of snowfall at higher altitudes. The Meteorological Agency said more snow was expected later on Wednesday.
Local residents say snow tends to settle each year from the end of October or early November and can be so thick in places that it buries mountain huts.