The bodies of 31 dead have been found near the peak of the Mt. Ontake volcano in Japan, which unexpectedly erupted on Saturday morning. Rescue teams discovered the bodies on Sunday but cannot officially confirm the deaths until they can be brought down from the mountainside for examination.
Though officials in Japan are reluctant to confirm a citizen dead until the body can be routinely examined, the 31 bodies found on the side of the erupted volcano are almost certainly deceased, according to spokesman Naofumi Miyairi. Four of the bodies carried down from the mountain have already been confirmed casualties by officials in the nearby area. The rest of the bodies remain on the mountain after rescue teams were threatened by dangerous conditions.
The sudden eruption of Mt. Ontake, which is a popular destination for hikers and outdoor-enthusiasts, caught many by surprise. Large plumes of volcanic gases were launched into the sky and the slopes were quickly obscured by layers of ash. Approximately 250 people were initially trapped by the volcanic ash immediately following the eruption, though most managed to make it down to safety. It is thought that around 50 people were forced to stay on the mountain overnight.
Approximately 45 people are still thought to be missing according to local news reports, including those recently discovered, although this has not been confirmed by officials. Some have expressed concern that other missing persons may be stranded in shelters on the mountainside and possibly experiencing extreme difficulty in breathing due to the clouds of ash.
Japan’s Self-Defense Force has mobilized to assist the rescue with the deployment of seven helicopters and 250 soldiers. Police and fire departments are also involved in the rescue effort and local volunteers have offered assistance to help the injured and provide them with shelter and food.
Mt .Ontake volcano, located between the Nagano and Gifu regions northwest of Tokyo, has been known to erupt before, as recently as 1991. Though the region had suffered several minor earthquakes in the lead-up to the major event on Saturday, there was nothing discovered by seismologists that suggested a large-scale eruption was likely.
Japan, one of the world’s most seismically active countries, suffers frequent earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and areas with a likely chance of volcanic activity are often closed to visitors. Eruptions without warning are very rare thanks to the country’s continuous monitoring of seismic activity, which has led some to question why the volcanic eruption of Mt. Ontake was not predicted.
According to volcanic scientists, the eruption on Mt. Ontake was caused by the movement of extremely hot steam and ash, instead of lava in the volcano’s magma chamber. These types of eruptions are allegedly much harder to predict. But the cause of the eruption also meant that those on the mountain at the time had a much greater chance of survival compared to victims of large volcanic events that have previously occurred.
Despite having found the 31 people thought to be dead near the summit of the erupted volcano, Japanese officials have called off the rescue teams due to the danger of volcanic gases in the area. Rescue efforts are due to be resumed on Monday, even as plumes of ash and gas continue to rise from the mountain.
By Mathew Channer