36 feared dead in volcanic eruption of Mount Ontake in Japan

Associated Press

At least 36 people are believed to have died when Mount Ontake erupted on Saturday

Associated Press |

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Mount Ontake's eruption trapped about 250 people who were enjoying a hike.

At least 36 people are believed to have died when Mount Ontake erupted on Saturday. The disaster happened just before noon - perhaps the worst possible time, as at least 250 people were enjoying a beautiful autumn hike.

It was the first fatal eruption in modern times at Mount Ontake, a popular destination 210km west of Tokyo on the main Japanese island of Honshu. A similar eruption occurred in 1979, but no one died.

The blast spewed large white plumes of gas and ash high into the sky, blotted out the midday sun and blanketed the surrounding area in ash.

Survivors told Japanese media that they were pelted by rocks. One man said he and others went into the basement of a lodge, fearing that the rocks would break through the roof. He covered himself with a thin mattress for protection.

At first, hundreds were trapped on the slopes, but most made their way down by Saturday night. About 40 others were stranded overnight, and came down on Sunday. Many were injured, and some had to be rescued by helicopters or carried down on stretchers. By nightfall on Sunday, all the injured had been brought down. Rescuers gave priority to helping the survivors come down, leaving behind those who were obviously without hope.

Media reported that some of the bodies were found in a lodge near the peak while others were buried in ash up to 50cm deep. Japan's Fire and Disaster Management Agency counted 37 injured people and said it was trying to update the number still missing.

Four victims were flown down on Sunday, and rescuers returned to the 3,067-metre mountain on Monday morning to save the remaining 27.

Rescue workers began airlifting the remaining bodies on Monday morning, as family members of the missing waited at a nearby school.