NAGANO – The search resumed Wednesday for six people missing on Mount Ontake following its eruption in September. The hunt was suspended last fall when winter weather set in.
After offering silent prayers, search parties headed for the 3,067-meter peak straddling Nagano and Gifu prefectures, where the victims likely died during the Sept. 27 eruption, their bodies now buried beneath ash and rock.
But the searchers found none of the missing before the day’s operation was cut short due to the weather, officials said.
The confirmed death toll stands at 57, making it the nation’s deadliest volcanic disaster in more than 80 years.
A total of 570 people participated in Wednesday’s operation from the Nagano side, according to the Nagano task force. The searchers were mostly police and firefighters.
Some used metal detectors, while drones were deployed to reach inaccessible areas. Four temporary shelters have been set up near the peak for the search teams in case of a fresh eruption.
Searchers began the hunt shortly after the eruption but called it off about 10 days later on Oct. 16, and the effort has been suspended for the past nine months.
As the latest search is now limited to areas around the peak, Nagano Gov. Shuichi Abe said it should take less time to complete.
The Japan Meteorological Agency lowered its eruption alert from Level 3 to Level 2 in June.
The lower risk level merely cautions people to stay away from the crater, and the reduction means experts are confident there will not be an eruption of the same magnitude or worse.
Given the eruption there and intensifying volcanic activity elsewhere this year, the Japan Meteorological Agency plans to introduce a new alert system from Aug. 4 to prompt swift evacuations when volcanic eruptions are detected.
Alerts will be sent to municipalities’ radio systems as well as to smartphones of people in the area within five minutes of an eruption.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, the agency raised the volcanic alert for Mount Meakandake in Hokkaido, warning that a small eruption is possible.
The five-point threat level for the 1,499-meter mountain in Akan National Park in eastern Hokkaido was raised from Level 1 to Level 2. Level 1 cautions people to “be mindful that the volcano is potentially active.”
The nearby municipalities of Kushiro and Ashoro imposed restrictions for hikers within 500 meters of the crater.