Japanese officials said that a volcano eruption and avalanche had hit a popular ski resort on Tuesday morning, killing a soldier during a training mission and injuring at least 16 other troops and civilians.
Among the people hurt, five were seriously injured after being hit by flying rocks that spewed out of the volcano on Mount Kusatsu-Shirane, north-west of Tokyo. None of those injuries, most of which were broken bones, were said to be life-threatening.
Television footage showed thick smoke rising out of the mountain, as volcanic rocks rained down.
“There was this huge boom, and a big plume of totally black smoke rose up,” one skier told local broadcaster NHK. “I had absolutely no idea what had happened.”
Officials at Japan’s Meteorological Agency raised the volcano alert to three-out-of-five, warning that the volcano could soon erupt once again, risking further avalanches. Around 100 people were evacuated from the area, according to one eye-witness, but many others remain stranded.
Thick black ash covered large sections of the ski slope, making it difficult for rescue teams to reach stranded skiiers.
Soldier killed during training exercise
The killed soldier was one of around 30 infantry personnel from the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force, which had been training on the mountain when the avalanche hit. Five others were injured although the injuries are not believed to be life-threatening, according to a ministry spokesman.
Among the injured were also four people who were in a ropeway gondola at the ski resort in Gunma when rocks shattered the glass windows.
Local fire department officials said that 80 people were stranded at a gondola station at the top of a ski slope, and that rescuers on snow mobiles were working out how to safely operate the vehicles on slopes covered in volcanic ash and rocks.
A rest house at the resort was also hit by flying volcanic rocks, although the extent of the damage was not yet known.
Authorities denied earlier reports that a person had gone missing during the incident.
dm/rt (AP, dpa, AFP)