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Japan Rescuers Battle Erupting Volcano to Save Stranded Hikers

Rescue workers finally reached the ash-covered summit of a still-erupting volcano in central Japan, only to make a grim discovery on Sunday.

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Firefighters and members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces conduct a rescue operation at a cabin near the peak of Mount Ontake as plumes of smoke billow in central Japan, on Sept. 28, 2014.

Mount Ontake erupted shortly before noon Saturday, spewing large white plumes of gas and ash high into the sky and blanketing the surrounding area in ash. Rescue workers on Sunday found more than 30 people unconscious and believed to be dead near the peak of an erupting volcano, a Japanese police official said.

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Image: More than 30 victims in critical condition after eruption in Japan

Japanese Self-Defense Force members and firefighters participate in a rescue operation on Mount Ontake, on Sunday.

Finally reaching the ash-covered summit of a still-erupting volcano in central Japan, rescue workers made a grim discovery Sunday: 31 apparently dead people, some reportedly buried in knee-deep ash.

Japanese Defense Ministry Joint / JAPAN DEFENSE MINISTRY JOINT STA
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Image: Hiker is lifted by a rescue helicopter of JSDF during a rescue operation at Mt. Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures, central Japan

A hiker is lifted by a rescue helicopter of Japan Self-Defense Force during a rescue operation at Mt. Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures, on Sunday.

Four victims were brought down and confirmed dead, one day after Mount Ontake's big initial eruption, said Takehiko Furukoshi, a Nagano prefecture crisis-management official. The 27 others were listed as having heart and lung failure, the customary way for Japanese authorities to describe a body until police doctors can examine it.

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Image: Mt Ontake erupts

White smoke rises around a mountain lodge covered with volcanic ash near the summit of the 10,062-foot Mount Ontake on Sunday.

It was the first fatal eruption in modern times at a popular climbing destination about 130 miles west of Tokyo on the main Japanese island of Honshu. A similar eruption occurred in 1979, but no one died.

Kimimasa Mayama / EPA
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Firefighters and members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces carry a person rescued from a cabin, top left, near the peak of Mount Ontake on Sunday.

Japanese media reported that some of the bodies were found in a lodge near the summit and that others were buried in ash up to 20 inches deep. Police said only two of the four confirmed dead had been identified. Both were men, ages 23 and 45.

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Plumes of smoke and ash billow from Mount Ontake as it continues to erupt in on Sunday.

The eruption occurred shortly before noon at perhaps the worst possible time, with at least 250 people taking advantage of a beautiful fall Saturday to go for a hike. The blast spewed large white plumes of gas and ash high into the sky, blotted out the midday sun and blanketed the surrounding area in ash.

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Image: Men walk next to mountain lodges covered with volcanic ash near a crater of Mt. Ontake, which straddles Nagano and Gifu prefectures

Men walk next to mountain lodges covered with volcanic ash near a crater of Mt. Ontake, on Sunday.

Survivors told Japanese media that they were pelted by rocks. One woman said she covered her head with a knapsack, and later found a thermos inside had been flattened.

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Firefighters and members of the Japan Self-Defense Forces carry a person rescued near the peak of Mount Ontake on Sunday.

About 40 people who were stranded overnight came down on Sunday. Many were injured, and some had to be rescued by helicopters or carried down on stretchers. By nightfall, all the injured had been brought down, officials said.

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Image: More than 30 victims in critical condition after eruption in Japan

A Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces helicopter lifts a person rescued on Mount Ontake on Sunday.

Japanese Defense Ministry Joint / JAPAN DEFENSE MINISTRY JOINT STA
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Rescue workers descend Mount Ontake after they called off a search operation due to noxious fume on Sunday.

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Firefighters walk down a road heading away from Mount Ontake as it continues to erupt on Sunday, in Otaki Village, Nagano prefecture, Japan.

Koji Ueda / AP
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An injured climber is helped by a firefighter, left, after descending Mount Ontake on Sunday.\

— The Associated Press

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