Japan, which is one of the most seismically active countries in the world, is once again grappling to deal with a volcanic eruption. The 3,067-meter (10,100-foot) high Mount Ontake, which is nearly 200 km (125 miles) west of the capital Tokyo, erupted suddenly yesterday injuring at least 40 people while at least 30 more are missing. Local media on Saturday reported that a person died, but firefighters said the death had not been confirmed.

Ontake is one of the 100 most active volcanoes in Japan, last erupted in 2007 though no casualties were reports that time. The volcano, meanwhile, continued billowing smoke over central Japan as a group of 23 hikers stranded overnight near the volcano’s summit, completed their descent to safety.

Climbers who sheltered overnight in a mountain lodge arrived this morning at the trailhead leading to Ontake’s popular hikes, their jackets coated with volcanic ash and their noses and mouths protected by white surgical masks.

“I thought I was going to die,” a female hiker who was near the volcano’s crater when it began belching smoke, ash and rocks told TV Asahi.

A suffocating blanket of ash up to 20 centimeters (eight inches) deep covered a large area of the volcano, trapping climbers and forcing up to 150 to seek refuge in mountaintop shelters at one point.

Ariel television footage showed a line of rescue workers, wearing orange uniforms or green camouflage, scaling grey, ash-covered trails Sunday. Video footage posted online showed hikers scrambling to descend as ash and steam enveloped them.

“All of a sudden ash piled up so quickly that we couldn’t even open the door,” Shuichi Mukai, who worked in a mountain hut just below the peak, told Reuters. He said the hut quickly filled with hikers taking refuge. “We were really packed in here, maybe 150 people. There were some children crying but most people were calm. We waited there in hard hats until they told us it was safe to come down.”

Among the injured, some were hit by flying rocks or suffered burns after inhaling hot volcanic ash, the Yomiuri Shimbun said.

The meteorological agency forecast further eruptions, warning that volcanic debris may settle within four kilometers (2.5 miles) of the peak. The agency also placed restrictions on access to the mountain, while calling on local residents to remain alert as an eruption could shatter windows miles away.

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