TOKYO — Rescuers scrambling to save hikers trapped in central Japan by a volcanic explosion found 31 people who did not have pulses, officials said Sunday. More than 500 police, firefighters and troops were mobilized in the rescue attempts on Japan’s Mount Ontake after the volcano’s sudden eruption on Saturday trapped dozens of hikers at its peak. Seven people were rescued by military helicopters earlier in the day, but rescuers trekked up the 10,000-foot mountain to reach dozens of people unable or unwilling to climb down on their own. Once the rescuers reached the summit, they made the grim discovery, according to the Nagano Prefectural Police. Four victims were brought down from the mountain and officially declared dead, according to Japan’s public broadcaster NHK. The recovery operation was cut short when crews smelled sulfur, and 27 people were left behind, NHK reported. The remaining 27 are considered to be in "cardiopulmonary" arrest, but officials will not confirm their deaths until a formal examination is conducted, as per Japanese custom. The Nagano Prefectural Police said additional people could be trapped, but they did not find any additional bodies or hikers during an extensive search Sunday.
A large plume continued to rise from Mount Ontake, which is a popular climbing destination, on Sunday. Shinichi Shimohara, who works at a shrine at the foot of the mountain, told The Associated Press that he was on his way up Saturday morning when he heard a loud noise that sounded like strong winds followed by "thunder" as the volcano erupted. "For a while I heard thunder pounding,” he told the AP. "Soon after, some climbers started descending. They were all covered with ash, completely white. I thought to myself, this must be really serious."