October 1, 2014 – Tragedy on Mount Ontake: Pictured above, Japanese soldiers and firefighters searched near the peak of Mount Ontake in central Japan on Wednesday. So far, 47 bodies have been found after Saturday’s eruption.
Gaku Harada remembers it as a perfect day for hiking. A clear blue sky drew hundreds of weekend climbers to Mount Ontake, one of Japan’s most celebrated peaks, to see the first tints of autumn in the leaves.
Then, without warning, the top of the mountain exploded.
Mr. Harada, a professional climbing guide, was leading a local television crew up the mountain to film a nature show. One moment, the peak was clearly visible about a mile in front of them. The next, it vanished into a dark, billowing cloud as a thundering wall of gray ash raced down the slope toward them.
Unable to process what he was seeing, he said he froze, and then snapped out of it when a companion yelled, “Eruption!” Within minutes, his group was engulfed in ash so thick it blotted out the sun and began to fill their mouths. They groped their way down the mountain in the unnatural darkness as the sickening, rotten-egg stench of sulfur filled the air. But it was the sounds, he said, that scared him most: the thunder from the eruption, and the thud of boulders crashing into the slope behind them.
“I thought it was the end of the world,” said Mr. Harada, 38, who helped lead the group to a lodge on the mountainside. “I had only seen volcanic eruptions in movies and never dreamed I’d experience one in real life.”
Four days after the worst volcanic disaster in its recent history, Japan is still struggling to count the dead — and come to terms with a tragedy that caught both experienced mountaineers and locals who revere the mountain by surprise. While 47 bodies have been found so far, officials remain unsure how high the total could rise because they do not know how many people were on the mountain in central Japan on Saturday, when it erupted in a six-mile-high shower of hot ash, flying rocks and poison gases.
On Wednesday, the levels of those toxic gases dropped low enough to allow rescue efforts to resume after a day’s hiatus. Military helicopters ferried soldiers and rescue workers to the peak to search for survivors and collect the bodies of the dead.
At least 230 hikers are known to have survived, many straggling down the mountain hours or even a day after the eruption, dazed and covered with ash. They, and the residents of the tiny villages at the foot of Mount Ontake, are only beginning to come to terms with the unexpected eruption that turned an idyllic alpine peak crowded with weekend adventurers into a moonscape littered with the dead.
“Mount Ontake has always been a reassuringly protective presence for us,” said Katsunori Morimoto, 51, an official here in Otaki, a hamlet of 865 residents whose wooden homes and tidy rice paddies nestle in an emerald valley at the foot of the mountain. “Never in our wildest dreams did we think it could kill.”
Mr. Morimoto and other villagers said the mountain, which looms above Otaki, has long been a source of spiritual strength as well as economic sustenance for the village. Mount Ontake, whose name means “august peak,” has been revered since the eighth century as a sacred dwelling site of gods in Japan’s native Shinto religion, and it is still visited by pilgrims wearing white tunics and straw hats. Many pilgrims stay in Otaki’s inns, which also cater to the 65,000 hikers who pass through the village every year.
The Master of Disaster