Survivors filmed the eruption at close quarters and described volcanic rock falling “like hailstones”, as Rupert Wingfield-Hayes reports
Rescue teams searching Japan’s Mount Ontake for missing climbers suspended operations as the volcano continued to shoot gas, rocks and ash into the air.
At least 36 people are believed to have died when Mt Ontake erupted unexpectedly on Saturday.
Hundreds of hikers were on the volcano when it erupted. Most walked down to safety but others were trapped.
Dozens of people were injured in the incident on the mountain, which is about 200km (125 miles) west of Tokyo.
Early on Monday helicopters began searching, as smoke rose from the peak.
Hundreds of firefighters, police and troops were involved in the operation, which later had to be halted because of the adverse conditions.
Twelve bodies have been recovered so far. Another 24 are reported to be on the mountain, after five more were located during the course of the day.
Monday’s search centred on a mountain lodge on Mount Ontake.Eventually toxic gases and ash forced the search teams to suspend their operation.
Some of the bodies were found in a lodge near the summit and others were buried in ash up to 50cm (20in) deep, Japanese media reported.
Hikers who made it down the mountain told how a rolling cloud of volcanic debris had swept down its flanks, smothering everything in its path.
“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 the broadcaster Asahi.
The bodies of some of the victims were brought down from the volcano on Sunday.The volcano erupted unexpectedly on Saturday leaving many hikers trapped.
Another told how she had heard the last moments of a victim hit by a cascade of rocks.
“There was someone lying outside the hut after being hit in the back,” she said.
“He was saying ‘It hurts, it hurts’, but after about half an hour he went quiet.”
Another 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.
Relatives of those still missing are facing an anxious wait for news at a nearby elementary school.
One tearful father clutched a photograph of his son and the young man’s girlfriend, neither of whom have been heard of since the eruption.
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.
Japan’s meteorological agency has forecast further eruptions and warned that volcanic debris may settle within 4km (2.5 miles) of the peak.