NAGANO – Search teams began withdrawing Friday from eruption-hit Mount Ontake after authorities called off the search for the winter because of snow.
The eruption on Sept. 27 claimed 56 lives, but seven people remain missing as snow and other hazards make the hunt for their corpses an increasingly on-off affair.
On Thursday, the Nagano Prefectural Government called a halt.
The search was coordinated from a base in the village of Otaki, which is situated at the foot of the volcano.
Local officials gathered in Otaki for a ceremony at which they thanked the Ground Self-Defense Force troops and police for their work.
“I’d like to thank (them) from the bottom of my heart for working amid such severe conditions,” said Nagano Gov. Shuichi Abe.
The hazards included altitude sickness, continuing volcanic activity and clouds of toxic gas emanating from the vents.
Moreover, the ash absorbed rain and became a thick, unstable layer of mud that further impeded the search.
The volcano’s upper reaches have been mostly examined.
Over the course of the search, around 15,000 members of the GSDF, police and fire departments have taken part.
On Thursday, around 960 personnel were near the summit, re-examining the mountain lodges and hiking paths where the missing were most likely to have fallen. They found no bodies.
The government hopes to resume the search next spring if conditions allow.
“If there is anything we can do in the spring, we will do it,” Defense Minister Akinori Eto told a news conference Friday.
Mount Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures, erupted without warning around noon on Sept. 27, just as many hikers were reaching the summit.
The volcano, which last experienced a major eruption in 1979 and a minor one in 1991, was a popular destination in autumn for the sight of its turning leaves.