Update as of 1:21 a.m. EDT: Japanese soldiers brought down eight bodies from the peak of Mount Ontake, which was still erupting Monday, forcing them to adjourn the operation due to toxic gas and ash in the atmosphere, according to reports.
At least 31 people are feared dead after the eruption on Mount Ontake, which lies about 130 miles west of Tokyo. Saturday’s eruption was its first since 1979.
At least 30 bodies have been found near the summit of the Mount Ontake volcano in Japan, which erupted Saturday without warning, its first major eruption since 1979 when it spewed more than 200,000 tons of ash. More than 550 police, firefighters and troops ascended the 3,067-meter (10,121-foot) slope early Sunday to search for survivors, Voice of America News reported.
Agence France-Press reported rescue efforts were called off in midafternoon Sunday as poisonous gases and steam spewed from the crater. A blanket of ash as deep as 20 centimeters (eight inches) covered a wide area, forcing as many as 150 people into mountaintop shelters. The eruption, which was likened to thunder, shattered windows miles away. Japanese television network NHK broadcast footage of hikers screaming as rocks rained down.
“Massive ash suddenly fell and the entire area was totally covered by it,” NHK reporter Mikio Oguro said by phone, the Japan Times reported. “My colleagues later told me that they thought they might die.”
"There were no earthquakes or strange smells on the mountain when I was there," Satoshi Saito, 52, who descended less than an hour before the eruption, told Reuters. "But a man who runs a hotel near the mountain told me that the number of small earthquakes had risen these past two months, and everyone thought it was weird."
AFP said 230 hikers managed to make it to safety Saturday and reported being engulfed in darkness for several minutes. A group of 25 hikers, including at least one child, forced to overnight in a shelter managed to climb down Sunday.
Japan Times said authorities had confirmed four deaths when the bodies were brought to the base of the mountain. The other 27 other found in "cardiac arrest" at the summit would not be pronounced until they are recovered. Ten of the victims were found at a spot where smoke was escaping and could not be retrieved immediately, Japan Times said. Rescue operations were to resume Monday.
Reuters reported some of those stranded overnight took shelter in basements.
"The roof on the mountain lodge was destroyed by falling rock, so we had to take refuge below the building," one told NHK. "That's how bad it was."
"People panicked," a member of the group, his face smudged with ashes, told NHK. "Honestly, I am glad I was able to come back alive."
Ontake, Japan's second-highest volcano, last erupted seven years ago. Saturday's eruption forced flight delays at Tokyo's Haneda airport but operations were back to normal Sunday, an airport spokeswoman told Reuters.