Japan Suspends Search for Volcano Victims at Mt. Ontake

Mt. Ontake continued shaking violently and coughing out toxic steam, suspending today’s efforts to retrieve victims believed to have been killed in the Sept. 27 eruption at Japan’s second-highest volcano.

The search for bodies buried in ash near the summit was called off for the day, said an official at Nagano prefecture’s crisis management center, who didn’t want to be named because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. Crews with idled helicopters had been waiting since morning near the foot of the mountain in central Japan for volcanic activity to subside.

At least 36 people are believed to have died in the explosion, which left 69 others injured, 29 of them seriously, Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency said today in a statement. An unknown number remain missing.

Crews were exercising caution due to warnings by experts that Mt. Ontake may erupt again following a volcanic earthquake detected last night, Fujimori said.

“We keep experiencing volcanic tremors,” he said. “Eruptions tend to follow volcanic earthquakes and tremors.”

Recovery teams hoped to resume work this morning after suspending operations for a second straight day yesterday due to dangerous gases emitting from the volcano that threatened crew members’ health.

Twelve bodies have been retrieved from the mountain since Sept. 28 and declared dead, a Nagano prefectural police official said today by phone, asking not to be identified due to agency policy. The 24 who remain on the mountain are described as being in an unresponsive state, though have not been declared dead pending medical examination.

Harrowing Scene

Crews who joined the rescue operation described a harrowing scene near the mountaintop in a Kyodo News report, with the arms and legs of buried victims emerging from gray volcanic dust and bodies pressed between rocks.

“I believe the victims had no time to escape,” Hideki Shionozaki, a 43-year-old rescue worker from the Nagano fire department, told Kyodo.

Workers attached tags reading “dead” to the bodies they exhumed and left them for military crews in helicopters to retrieve, according to Kyodo.

Eight of the 303 people who filled out safety registration cards before climbing the mountain were still missing as of yesterday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters. It’s possible that hikers who did not fill out the card could still be unaccounted for, he said.

Clear Day

Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Holdings Inc., Nissay Asset Management Corp., Japan Post Holdings Co. and Fujitsu Ten Ltd. reported having employees who have either gone missing on the mountain or have been confirmed dead.

Hikers had unrestricted access to Mt. Ontake on Sept. 27, a clear early autumn day that would have drawn an especially large number of visitors. Volcanic activity was at an even lower frequency prior to the eruption than that recorded before a smaller Ontake event in 2007, the Japan Meteorological Agency said.

Japan lies on the so-called “Ring of Fire,” an arc of volcanoes and fault lines surrounding the Pacific Basin, and it sits at the three-way meeting point of the North American, Eurasian and Philippine Sea tectonic plates.

Ontake is one of more than 100 active volcanoes in Japan, according to the website www.volcanodiscovery.com, which dates the mountain’s first recorded eruption to 1979, when ash fell as far as 150 kilometers away.

The last previous fatalities from volcanic activity in Japan were 43 people killed in the 1991 eruption of Mt. Unzen, on Japan’s southernmost island of Kyushu.

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