More than 30 people may be dead in a volcanic eruption in central Japan, the nation’s second natural disaster in the past month.

For an update, see related article, Death Toll in Japan Volcano Rises to 36.

(AP Photo/Kyodo News)
(AP Photo/Kyodo News)

Smoke and ash billowed from Mt. Ontake throughout the day yesterday as efforts continued to find missing hikers and bring down those injured. Takeo Kamata, 60, said a hot wind blew and it became difficult to breathe when the 3,067-meter (10,100-foot) volcano erupted shortly before noon yesterday.

“Little volcanic rocks struck my legs and back. I thought if a big one hits me I’m dead,’ Kamata said in an interview with public broadcaster NHK. “I was thinking of my family, saying ‘sorry, goodbye.'”

Dozens who sheltered overnight in mountain lodges descended to trailheads today, some aided by police, fire and military rescue teams, their jackets coated with volcanic ash and their noses and mouths protected by white surgical masks.

Thirty-one victims were found in cardiac arrest on the mountain, said Naofumi Miyairi, a spokesman for the Nagano prefectural police, declining to comment further on their conditions. No additional information on the injured or missing was available as of 9 p.m. local time, Nagano police reported.

Public broadcaster NHK said local fire authorities in the region had retracted an earlier announcement that one woman had been found dead yesterday.

The Ontake eruption comes five weeks after torrential rains triggered mudslides that killed at least 42 people in Hiroshima. Rescue workers there are still seeking the remains of some missing victims.

Hiking Paradise

Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures, offers scenic views of the 3,000-meter peaks of Japan’s Northern and Southern Alps.

Yesterday’s clear skies would have drawn an especially large number of hikers to the mountain’s popular trails, Arata Matsunaga, a staffer at the tourism association in Nagano prefecture’s Kiso town, said by phone. He declined to speculate how many may have been hiking in the area or whether the official count of missing hikers is likely to increase.

At least 35 people spent the night on the Gifu side of the mountain, Takashi Sugishita, a spokesman for the prefectural disaster management office, said by phone.

“I thought I was going to die,” a female hiker who was near the volcano’s crater when it began belching smoke, ash and rocks told TV Asahi.

Seven climbers were flown off the mountain today and some were hospitalized, NHK reported. Separately, four of those found in heart failure have also been taken off the mountain by helicopter, Miyairi said.

Reports on Missing

Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency said earlier in the day yesterday that 45 people remained unaccounted for. Figures on the number of missing have been compiled using reports from operators of mountain lodges, so only include those who stayed in the area overnight, Hiroshi Koizumi, a spokesman for Nagano’s crisis management section, said by phone.

About 550 police, fire and military personnel were aiding the rescue effort, NHK said.

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, according to Charles Connor, a geophysicist specializing in volcanoes at the University of South Florida.

Television images of Ontake showed an ashy white haze flowing upward from the volcano’s craters, in stark contrast to the gray clouds that spread over the mountain’s contours following the eruption yesterday.

‘Opening Phase’

“Often activity continues for quite some time at these types of volcanoes,” Connor said. “It would not be unusual for this to be a relatively low volume sort of opening phase of a higher level of activity at the volcano.”

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.

Mt. Ontake erupted most recently in March 2007, according to the weather agency, which warned on its website of volcanic- ash falls in Gifu, Nagano and Yamanashi prefectures.

Ontake is one of more than 100 active volcanoes in Japan.
–With assistance from Chisaki Watanabe, Yuki Yamaguchi and Brian Fowler in Tokyo.