Japan volcano: Fears of second massive eruption as earthquakes increase and clouds of gas and ash billow from Mount Ontake

Officials have increased their estimates to 36 killed in Saturday’s blast

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Volcanic tremors and eruptions of gas and ash from Mount Ontake have raised fears of a second large explosion and forced rescue workers to abandon the mountain.

The earthquakes have risen to levels not seen since Saturday evening, the prelude to Ontake’s deadly eruption in which dozens were killed. The billowing column of noxious gas and ash issuing from the summit can be seen from tens of miles away.

“At this point, anything can happen,” Shoji Saito of the Japan Meteorological Agency said, though he stopped short of predicting another large eruption.

Rescuers found five more bodies near the summit of the volcano yesterday, bringing the death toll to 36. Only 12 of those have been recovered because of the volatile conditions at the summit. About 80 to 100 relatives and friends of those who never returned from the mountain were waiting for news in a municipal hall in the nearby central Japanese town of Kiso.

The stories of those among the roughly 250 survivors of the disaster have started to emerge.

Yuji Tsuno, a veteran mountain photographer, was near the summit at the time of the erruption. After taking pictures of the initial explosion as ash and debris rained down, he quickly took refuge in a nearby hut, he told TBS TV network. 

About 20 minutes later, when the smoke partially subsided, Tsuno rushed out and began his descent. It was a gamble, but he believed it was his only chance, he said.  “I almost thought it was the end of my life,” he said in the interview. 

On his way down, he spotted a man heading up. “I told him to go down with me, but he said he had to check on his child up there. I couldn't stop him,” Tsuno said. 

The eruption caught seismologists by surprise. Although somewhat increased seismic activity had been recorded for about two weeks, there were no indications of a major eruption, said Satoshi Deguchi, a Japan Meteorological Agency official in Nagano prefecture.

Typical signs, such as increased seismic rattling or underground structural movement, were not detected.