Soldiers in firefighting gear ventured Tuesday into the shadow of a suddenly ferocious volcano, recovering four bodies and sighting 24 others before being turned back by Mount Unzen's searing gas, ash and rock.
City officials, meanwhile, said four people had died of injuries, bringing the death toll to 32. Sixteen others were hospitalized, most with severe burns. The deaths were the first from a volcanic eruption in Japan since 1962.At least 31 people, including three researchers and 16 journalists, had been reported missing following Monday's first serious eruptions of the 4,485-foot volcano in southern Japan.
People with severe burns and their clothes in shreds were taken to nearby hospitals after the volcano began sending torrents of molten ash, gas and rock down a valley in a fast-moving flow.
The liquid fire set dozens of homes ablaze in the mountainside town of Ka-mikoba, from which authorities evacuated about 5,000 people.
"There were popping sounds, and there was tremendous smoke. I expected death at any moment," said Chiyoe Matsuo, a housewife who gathered up valuables from her home and fled.
Much of what Mount Unzen was spewing is known as pyroclastic flow, or glowing avalanche.
Much faster than any lava stream, a glowing avalanche can move dozens of miles per hour and consists of a superheated, fluidlike emulsion of volcanic ash, gas and rock fragments.
Clouds of steam boiled up hundreds of yards from the mountain, site of Japan's worst volcanic disaster 200 years ago, when 15,000 people died. The area was jolted by earthquakes early Tuesday, the Meteorological Agency said.
Miles away, thick volcanic ash spattered windshields and covered buildings.
"We are about eight kilometers (4.8 miles) away from the volcano. I don't know how far the lava is going to run, but I don't think it will reach the city," said a Shima-bara city official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
French volcanologists Maurice and Katia Kraft and American researcher Harry Glicken were among the missing.
Officials said the three had been making daily appearances at a site near the mountain, which erupted on a far smaller scale on Nov. 17 for the first time in 198 years, then again on Feb. 12 and May 24.
Glicken, who worked for the U.S. Geological Survey until 1989, had moved to Japan to do research. He escaped death in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington state, leaving the mountain just before it blew.
The missing also included some police and firefighters who had been keeping watch and photographing Mount Unzen, which is less than 30 miles from Nagasaki.