Thirty-one climbers were feared dead after being found Sunday near the peak of a volcano which erupted Saturday without warning, spewing ash, rocks and steam.

Rescue workers battling rocketing levels of sulphurous gas found the climbers in a state of “cardiac arrest” near the summit of 3,067-meter Mount Ontake, police and local officials said.

“We have confirmed that 31 individuals in cardiac arrest have been found near the summit,” a Nagano prefectural police spokesman told AFP without elaborating.

Rescuers, who had to call off the search mid-afternoon Sunday, brought down four of them, apparently without administering any immediate medical treatment, said an emergency official at the Nagano prefectural government.

“The rescue team suspended their operation because of the increasing concentration of sulphurous gas in the area,” the official told AFP.

Firefighters have separately confirmed a total 30 people with injuries, including one serious case, he said, adding that the number could still change.

Some 550 soldiers, police and firefighters took part in a major operation to try to save dozens of hikers feared stranded on the volcano since it erupted into a sunny autumn sky during a busy weekend for tourists and hikers.

A suffocating blanket of ash up to 20 centimeters deep covered a large area of the volcano, and had forced up to 150 to seek refuge in mountaintop shelters at one point.

Local officials believe 45 to 49 people sheltered overnight in cabins on the mountain, although details remained unclear.

The mountain is popular among walkers, particularly in late September when the turning of the autumn leaves makes for dramatic scenery.

On Sunday, columns of thick white steam were still rising from Mount Ontake, feathering out into the clear blue sky.

Hikers who descended from the volcano reported scenes of horror, with stones raining down and hot ashes filling the air.

Video footage shot inside a cabin, taken shortly after the eruption and shown on NHK, revealed the screams of terrified hikers as rocks thundered against the roof and walls.

Gray, ash-filled air could be seen rolling against the window before it thickened into darkness, blocking out the sunlight and leaving just the soundtrack of debris pounding on the structure.

A group of 25 hikers—including a schoolchild—who spent the night in a cabin, were able to climb down Sunday to reach the start of one a trail.

A middle-age man who was among the group said they had been near the summit.

“People panicked,” he told NHK, his face smudged with ashes. “Honestly, I am glad I was able to come back alive.”

Emergency helicopters rescued seven people, including two who were able to wave at a Self-Defense Force helicopter.

“The helicopter flew over there very early in the morning to survey the condition. Then it found the two people waving at it,” said a spokesman at Otaki village in Nagano prefecture.

“Originally, the rescuers thought it might be difficult to go near them because ash could rise (and damage the helicopter), but the conditions were better than they believed and they were able to rescue the two people,” he told AFP.

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