One body recovered near the volcano’s peak was in a squatting position and had to be dug out of a thick layer of ash. Another was caught between boulders bigger than large refrigerators. Police who recovered the bodies Wednesday portrayed a painful scene of death around the summit where hikers enjoying an autumn weekend hike were caught by the mountain’s surprise eruption.
The death toll from Saturday’s eruption on Mount Ontake in central Japan rose to 47, Nagano police said in a statement. While ash and gases were spewing from the crater, searchers wearing surgical masks and helmets carried devices to measure the toxicity of the gases to make sure it was safe to be on the slopes filled with volcanic debris.
It was the worst fatal eruption in postwar history, exceeding the 43 killed in the 1991 eruption of Mount Unzen in southern Japan.
Ground Self-Defense Forces mobilized CH-47 helicopters to bring the last bodies to the foot of Ontake, known as one of Japan’s 100 best mountains and topped by a shrine that attracts visitors. Prefectural and police officials said most bodies were found around the summit, where many climbers were resting or having lunch at the time of the eruption. Other victims were found at a slightly lower elevation that reportedly had little place to hide.
Nagano police riot unit leader Mamoru Yamazaki described the rescue scene as “severe.”
His team, part of hundreds of rescuers dispatched Wednesday, found some of the bodies outside of a lodge just below the mountaintop shrine and on a hiking trail leading to the area, Yamazaki said.
Rescuers used a special cutting machine to retrieve the body stuck between the two huge rocks, he said. They recovered four other bodies from slits between rocks.
Many victims were half-buried in the ash, others even deeper, he told reporters. One was found curled up in a ducking position toward the crater as if to protect the back of the head from flying rocks and to avoid ash and fumes getting in the face. “My impression is that the person had tried to cover the head, bent over into a ball and then was buried by debris and ash while in that position,” Yamazaki said, trying to emulate the posture.
Authorities say all of the known victims have been recovered, but the decision on whether to end the search was still being evaluated. In their statement giving the death toll, Nagano police also apologized for an earlier miscount of 48 dead.
The nearly 70 people who were injured in the eruption had bruises, cuts and broken bones indicating flying rocks hit them as they fled down the slope. Survivors described hiding in rock crevasses or inside mountain lodges while smoke blackened the sky and ash covered the ground.
The Japan Meteorological Agency said the levels of toxic gases were too low to cause health problems in distant towns, but it cautioned that ash could cause eye irritation, particularly among contact lens users, or trigger asthmatic symptoms. Surgical masks were distributed in one district of Otaki on Wednesday.
Before Saturday, seismologists had detected signs of increased seismic activity at Mount Ontake, one of Japan’s 110 active volcanos, but nothing signaled a fatal eruption.
Reporting by the Associated Press