NAGANO - While toxic gas, volcanic ash and rain continued to hamper the search for people still missing on Mt. Ontake a week after it erupted, a search-and-rescue unit restarted the operation at four areas around the peak of the mountain on Saturday.
As the bodies of 51 climbers, including some in cardiac arrest and presumed dead, have so far been recovered from the mountain as of Saturday, the search squad comprising the Ground Self-Defence Force, Nagano prefectural police and fire departments have been trying to find the remaining missing people as quickly as possible by gradually widening the search range.
Meanwhile, a senior official of the Nagano prefectural police expressed concern about the search despite the considerable experience of the prefectural police on mountainous terrain. "We have the expertise to rescue people on snow-covered mountains, but I'm afraid that's not the case on mountains covered by volcanic ash," he said.
The rain that started Thursday has especially hampered their operation. The rescuers' feet can get stuck in ash that has absorbed rainwater - which increases the risk of slipping down mountain trails along a ridge.
The Nagano prefectural government on Thursday set a guideline on the time frame for calling off searches and descending the mountain in case of rain. The move, which is aimed at preventing a secondary disaster, increases the requirements for restarting the search operation.
According to the guideline, rescuers can resume the operation when the safety of the mountain trails is confirmed from the sky three hours after the rain stops, after an advance party on the ground verifies safety and rain is not expected for at least seven hours.
It takes about seven hours for rescuers to hike to the mountain peak and return to the starting point of a trail.
The search operation was restarted on Saturday as the rain stopped early in the morning. The operation, however, was expected to be halted Sunday because powerful Typhoon No.18 is approaching.
"We hope there will be no rain at least on Saturday," said a senior official of the prefecture's disaster headquarters.