Japanese Red Cross medical teams join rescue efforts following Mount Ontake volcanic eruption

At least 31 people are known to have perished following the unexpected volcanic eruption of Japan’s Mount Ontake on Saturday. The bodies of the dead were found by rescue teams from the police and fire departments who reached the peak yesterday afternoon in their search for survivors.

Over 250 hikers were at the peak when the volcano which lies about 130 miles west of Tokyo, began spewing rocks, ash and thick smoke. Most managed to find their way to safety but 45 remained missing.

The Japanese Red Cross immediately dispatched seven Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (DMAT) to the area to care for survivors. They also distributed over 400 blankets and 35 sleeping kits to hikers coming off the mountain.

Dr. Masato Ukita, was the leader of a seven-member team from the nearby Japanese Red Cross Takayama Hospital in Gifu prefecture.

“At four in the morning we gathered around and headed to the mountain. From the fire department, we were hearing that patients were in a terrible condition and might be suffering from oxygen deficiency”, explained Dr. Ukita.

One of the doctors and a nurse accompanied a mountain rescue helicopter and were able to rescue two severely injured people from a cottage at the peak of the mountain, who were immediately evacuated to the Takayama Hospital. The other team members set up a medical facility 2,450 meters up the mountain to receive patients.

“We received total of 26 patients in the medical tent we opened on the mountain. Fortunately their condition was not as severe as expected but we sent three patients by helicopter to the hospital. One patient had a left subclavian open fracture and was having breathing difficulties, another broke his left arm and other had severe internal bleeding on his hip and left arm because of falling volcanic rocks”.

The 23 people who were able to walk down the mountain were taken to the Gero City evacuation center. Although they were physically unharmed, Dr. Ukita remains concerned that they may be traumatized after their experience.

“Most spoke about how they saw family and friends buried by the volcanic ash or saw only hands and feet - the rest of the body was buried. Some had to dig themselves out of the ash. After these experiences it is vital they have access to psychological treatment.”

The hikers evacuated from Mount Ontake came from different prefectures all over Japan; the Red Cross stands ready to provide follow up care through their network of hospitals across the country.

“We need to pay close attention to them. We have asked for their contact details and given them details of our hospitals. In case they have no-one to talk to, they know that they can talk to us”, says Dr. Ukita.