Japan: More bodies discovered on volcano, death toll rises

Volcanic smoke rises from Mount Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures in central Japan. (Reuters)

Volcanic smoke rises from Mount Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures in central Japan. (Reuters)

Five additional bodies have been discovered on a Japanese volcano that erupted without warning, media reported on Wednesday, taking the death toll to at least 48.

National broadcaster NHK and several other media said the five were in addition to seven that were discovered on the ash-covered peak earlier in the day.

Military searchers resumed a recovery operation with helicopters early on Wednesday after poisonous gas and fears of further eruptions on Mount Ontake led officials to cancel rescue efforts a day earlier.

The eruption of the volcano – 3 067m above sea level and 200km west of Tokyo – caused deadly ash and stone to rain down on the hiking site at the peak, which was packed with climbers, including children.

Military personnel discovered around 10 victims in a state of cardiopulmonary arrest on Wednesday, several domestic television stations reported. Japanese authorities are likely to wait until the victims’ bodies have been brought off the mountain and examined by a doctor before declaring the deaths.

The police for Nagano Prefecture, in which half of the mountain is located, said they could not confirm the reports.

If confirmed dead, that would add to the 36 people already feared to have died on Mount Ontake.

Seismically active
Volcanoes erupt periodically in Japan, one of the world’s most seismically active nations. But there have been no fatalities since 1991, when 43 people died in a pyroclastic flow, a superheated current of gas and rock, on Mount Unzen in the southwest of the country.

If the death toll on Mount Ontake rises above 43, it will be the most lethal volcanic eruption since 1926, according to data on the Japan Meteorological Agency’s website.

Mount Ontake, Japan’s second most active volcano, last erupted in what was deemed a minor eruption seven years ago. Its last major eruption, the first on record, was in 1979.

Hikers said there was no warning of Saturday’s eruption just before noon and hundreds were trapped for hours before descent became possible later in the day. – AFP, Reuters

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