The towering volcano about 125 miles west of Tokyo is dotted with lakes and religious shrines. One of Japan’s holy mountains, Mount Ontake is still a destination for religious pilgrims. Its eruption over the weekend came without warning to some 250 climbers making their way to the peak.

Suddenly, white plumes of ash and gas spewed from the mountain, obscuring the midday sun.

“It was like thunder,” a woman interviewed by NHK said. “I heard ‘boom, boom,’ then everything went dark.”

A survivor told the Yomiuri newspaper he had seen a boy shouting “It’s hot” and “I can’t breathe” near the peak, before ash clouds turned everything black and silent, the BBC reported.

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“Ash was constantly falling. … Some people were buried alive but I could do nothing but tell [rescuers] about them over the radio,” Seiichi Sakurai, who worked at a climber’s lodge on the volcano, told public broadcaster NHK. He said he tried his best to save them.

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“Some people were buried in ash up to their knees and the two in front of me seemed to be dead,” a woman hiker told Asahi. Another said she listened to a man die after he was buried in a cascade of rocks. “He was saying ‘It hurts, it hurts,’ but after about half an hour he went quiet.”

According to the BBC:  “An elderly woman told the Asahi network that her son had called her just after the eruption. ‘He told me it erupted. He said “It’s over. I’m dying now,” and then the line was cut off,’ she said.”

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“I thought I was going to die,” a 25-year-old climber told the Yomiuri newspaper, describing the blast of hot air and falling rock. He had just arrived at the summit when smoke started billowing from the mountain. He took shelter in a nearby climber’s lodge with about 40 others. They clustered in the center of the room, some wearing helmets found in the cabin, others with pots and pans on their heads. Rocks rained down, puncturing the second floor of the cabin. Each time a rock smashed through to the first floor, they screamed. The room was like a sauna, he said, as ash and a hot wind swept through crevices in the cabin walls.

When the barrage subsided about two hours later at around 2 p.m., climbers and cabin staff started to descend the mountain. “I thought it was a desperate gamble whether we would be able to descend the mountain safely,” the young climber, who wasn’t named in the report, said. It took them three hours to get down the mountain on foot as smoke continued to billow ominously above.

Hundreds of hikers trapped on the slopes made it down the mountain on their own by nightfall Saturday, others collapsed on the trail as they tried to flee the volcano, the Asahi network reported. About 40 survivors were trapped on the mountain overnight and came down Sunday, the AP said.

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Rescuers found bodies in lodges near the summit and others buried in ash 20 inches deep, the Associated Press reported.

The scene was grim. Family members of the missing huddled in a nearby elementary school. Soldiers carried the bodies in yellow bags to military helicopters and flew them to nearby athletic field where they were moved white vans. Priority was given to helping survivors; those without hope of surviving were left behind, Takehiko Furukoshi, a Nagano prefecture crisis-management official, said. In all, 36 people are presumed dead. Among them were four victims who were airlifted off the mountain Sunday and confirmed dead. Another eight bodies were recovered and confirmed dead on Monday before the rescue operation was halted due toxic gas and fumes, the AP reported.

A thick cloud lingered for hours, forcing some aircraft to divert their routes.

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The danger may not be over. Japan’s meteorological agency said there could be another eruption. The first was caused by hot magma heating groundwater until it became steam and exploded. The simmering mountain could also hurl volcanic rock up more than two miles and leak hot gas, Japan Times reported. “Volcanic activity will continue intermittently for another week or two,” Koshun Yamaoka, professor of tectonic activities at Nagoya University’s Earthquake and Volcano Research Center, told the Asahi network.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency detected tremors 12 minutes before the mountain erupted Saturday. Tremors had been detected all month, but not the sort of swelling that signals an impending eruption. It was the type or eruption that provides little warning — the kind caused by explosive steam, not the kind that releases hot lava, Japan’s Asahi network reported.

There are more than 100 active volcanoes in Japan. Ontaku is one of 47 volcanoes Japanese authorities monitor 24 hours per day. It hasn’t had a major eruption since 1979.

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