January 23, 2018 / 3:36 AM / a month ago

One killed as avalanche engulfs skiers after volcano erupts at Japanese resort

TOKYO (Reuters) - One man was killed and at least 11 people injured, some critically, when rocks from an erupting volcano rained down on skiers at a mountain resort in central Japan on Tuesday and an avalanche soon after the eruption engulfed about a dozen skiers.

Seven of those struck by rocks were members of Japan’s Ground Self Defence Force (SDF) engaged in winter training maneuvers, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement.

All were rescued, with one dying later, it added.

Japanese media said at least 12 people were injured, many apparently hit by volcanic rocks. Two were critically injured and three seriously, national broadcaster NHK said.

One person was trapped in the avalanche for some time before being dug out by rescuers, who included SDF members.

Kusatsu-Shirane, a 2,160-metre (7,090 ft) volcano, erupted on Tuesday morning, the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) said. The agency warned that further eruptions could not be ruled out and that rocks could be thrown as far as 2 km (1 mile) from the peak.

Japan's Self-Defence Forces members take part in rescue work at a ski resort nearby Kusatsu-Shirane volcano in Kusatsu, Gunma Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo, in this photo taken by Kyodo on January 23, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

Video footage from the top of the resort’s gondola showed skiers gliding down the slopes as black rocks plummeted from the skies and snow billowed up as they struck the ground, sometimes just missing skiers. A cloud of black smoke later drifted in.

“There was this huge boom, and a big plume of totally black smoke rose up,” one skier told NHK. “I had absolutely no idea what had happened.”

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A photograph taken at the site and shown on NHK depicted a gondola with a shattered window. At least several of the injuries were due to broken glass.

“Other people appeared to be hurt by the stones, which appeared to be around 10 to 20 cm in size,” another skier told NHK.

The resort temporarily lost power, leaving a number of skiers suspended in gondolas for around half an hour until they resumed moving. About 80 skiers, including some non-Japanese at a hut at the top of the mountain, were later rescued by helicopters on Tuesday afternoon.

It was unclear whether the avalanche was caused by the volcanic activity but they occurred nearly simultaneously.

The warning level for the peak was raised to 3, meaning that people should not climb the mountain, the JMA said.

Japan has 110 active volcanoes and monitors 47 of them around the clock. In September 2014, 63 people were killed on Mount Ontake, the worst volcanic disaster in Japan for nearly 90 years.

Additional reporting by Nobuhiro Kubo and Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Clarence Fernandez

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