(Roundup) Death toll rises to 48 as rescue missions continue on volatile volcano in Japan

October 2, 2014 1:36 am 

TOKYO, Oct. 1 — Search and rescue workers comprising more than 1,000 police officers, firefighters and Self-Defense Forces personnel on Wednesday resumed works as well as recovery operations from Mount Ontake in central Japan, following a deadly eruption Saturday that took hundreds of hikers by surprise and left 48 people dead, said local media.

Rescuers resumed their searches, despite warnings from the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) that tremor levels were oscillating up and down, with seismic activity registering as high as Saturday when the volcano first erupted.

The JMA could not determine unequivocally whether Mount Ontake, which straddles both Nagano and Gifu prefectures in central Japan and is situated about 210 kilometers west of Tokyo, would erupt again, although a spokesperson for the agency was quoted as saying that"anything could happen."

With the death toll standing at 36 on Monday, many families remain in the dark about the fate of their loved ones who were among the 250 hikers thought to be on the mountain enjoying the stunning autumn scenery before Mount Ontake blew its top on Saturday, spewing out toxic gases, ash and peppering numerous victims with rocks, leaving some of the bodies with severe contusions, local police officials said.

While increased seismic activity continues to hamper recovery efforts, some of the bodies found have yet to be declared officially dead because official medical examinations have yet to be carried out.

Many of the bodies remain at the foot or at the peak of the mountain as harsh conditions, including particularly noxious volcanic gas accumulating near the summit, is making it extremely hard for rescue workers to get to and airlift the bodies off the mountain.

The death toll was higher than Japan's postwar record of 43 missing or dead after a massive eruption sent a huge pyroclastic flow sweeping down the Fugen Peak of Mount Unzen in southwestern Japan in 1991, devouring everything in its path.

A specialist team of 180 rescue workers are navigating the ash strewn trails on foot in an avid bid to reach the bodies at the mountain's summit, while SDF helicopters have lifted more than 300 other rescue workers to other areas near the summit.

Rescue workers said Wednesday that more survivors as well as casualties would likely be found in the next 24 hours, as the teams would be expanding their search parameters to include un- searched areas near the summit.

The local police agency's advisory panel on volcanic eruption prediction said the initial eruption of the 3,067-meter volcano was triggered by a "hydrovolcanic explosion," in which high-pressure water vapor spouts after groundwater is heated by magma. The panel said another eruption could definitely occur at any time.

Local media said that the agency has warned the volcano could launch big rocks from the crater within a roughly 4-kilometer range and that pyroclastic flows could still occur.

Mount Ontake is a popular destination for people to view autumn foliage and this time of year is one of the peak seasons for hiking.

The mountain erupted shortly before noon on Saturday at what police said was the worst possible time, as hundreds of people were taking advantage of the temperate and clear weather to take a hike when the blast, which initially spewed large white plumes of gas and ash hundreds of meters into the sky, caused day to become night and covered the entire area in an ominous layer of foreboding black ash.

In mere minutes, a perfect day out morphed into a tragic nightmare for hundreds of hikers and day-trippers who were helplessly trapped on the slopes and many have to endure the conditions overnight. (PNA/Xinhua)



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