More details have emerged about the final moments of those who died during the sudden and tragic eruption of Mount Ontake in central Japan last month.

This week, pathologists confirmed that of the 56 people who died when the volcano erupted on September 27, 20 were killed instantly when they were struck in the head or neck by falling rocks and debris. One doctor involved in the case told the Mainichi Shinbun, however, that around half of the victims they saw had been taking photos of the eruption when they died.

Mount Ontake is a popular hiking destination, and there were several hundred people on its slopes when it erupted, many of them there to see – and photograph – the autumn foliage. Videos taken by people fleeing clouds of ash were featured in news reports of the eruption.

The Mainichi Shinbun interviewed 10 pathologists about the bodies recovered from the mountain. One doctor told the paper that in around half the cases they had seen, the victims had been taking photos of the violent eruption, adding that at least one camera was found with photos taken in the moments after the volcano suddenly blew its top at 11:52am.

The unnamed pathologist expressed regret that those on the mountain had been unable to escape quicker, saying that some people had died with their cellphones in their hands.

▼ Hikers running from the cloud of ash and debris.


It is possible that people who took photos of the eruption did so believing they were far enough away from the summit to be safe from the rapid flow of debris.

The pathologist seems to be suggesting, however, that some hikers might have been able to escape if they hadn’t been taking photos – although it’s not particularly clear how they came to this conclusion. We might also question the assumption that those people found with cellphones in their hands had been taking photos, rather than trying to use the phone to call for help.

Twenty of the deaths were attributed to people being struck in the head or neck by falling rock flow; these people died instantly. A further 34 people were thought to have died from multiple injuries to the head or chest. In some cases, small stones had pierced the victim’s skull, jettisoned from the volcano with tremendous power and speed. “Even if they had been wearing helmets, it wouldn’t have made any difference,” the pathologist reported.

Seven people remain missing on Mount Ontake, but search teams were called off last week, due to snow and other hazards. The Nagano Prefectural Government said they hope to resume the search for bodies in the spring.

Sources: Mainichi Shinbun, Japan Times, Nippon.com
Featured image: Wikipedia/Alpsdake