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Japan's Shimabara city marks 30th anniv. of volcanic disaster

Volunteer fire corps members lay flowers on June 3, 2021, at a stand set up at a local sports complex in Shimabara, Nagasaki Prefecture, to commemorate the 1991 deadly pyroclastic flow caused by explosive eruptions of Mt. Unzen's Fugen Peak. (Kyodo)

NAGASAKI (Kyodo) -- The city of Shimabara in Nagasaki Prefecture, southwestern Japan, commemorated Thursday the 43 victims of a 1991 deadly pyroclastic flow caused by explosive eruptions of Mt. Unzen's Fugen Peak.

    About 150 people and officials, including family members of the victims, Nagasaki Gov. Hodo Nakamura and Shimabara Mayor Ryuzaburo Furukawa, attended an official memorial service at the city's Nita Danchi Daiichi Park and offered silent prayers.

    "We will continue our efforts to convey the threat of volcanic disasters to future generations so that disaster memories will not fade," said Sumi Omachi, 64, who represented the bereaved families at the service.

    Her husband Yasuo, then a 37-year-old volunteer fire corps member, was killed in the disaster.

    "We will learn from the history of natural disasters and pass on the lessons to posterity," said Furukawa.

    Nakamura said he still feels the pain of the families who lost their loved ones and extended his condolences to them.

    Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremony was scaled down from the previous major memorial held five years ago, with the number of participants slashed by two thirds.

    Prior to the service, volunteer fire corps members set up a flower stand at a local sports complex that was built after the disaster as a symbol of recovery.

    Fugen Peak erupted on Nov. 17, 1990, for the first time in around 200 years and caused a massive pyroclastic flow -- a fast-moving current of superheated gas, ash and rock -- at 4:08 p.m. on June 3, 1991, when the lava dome was breached.

    Along with local residents, the victims included 16 media personnel and four taxi drivers accompanying them, 12 firefighters and two police officers. American volcanologist Harry Glicken and French volcano experts Maurice Krafft and his wife Katia were also killed.

    Until the end of the disaster was declared on June 3, 1996, a total of 9,432 pyroclastic flows were observed. One of them, on June 23, 1993, claimed the life of a local resident who became the final victim of the series of eruptions.

    With the volcanic activities also triggering mudslides, more than 11,000 people were evacuated from the area at one point and about 2,500 houses were damaged in total.

    About 950 hectares of land in Shimabara and two other cities are still designated as areas requiring caution today.

    Earlier this year, a new stone monument was erected at a spot where media photographers took pictures of the volcano. The 16 media personnel and four taxi drivers died near the spot.

    The calamity raised questions about how the media should cover natural disasters, with rival media organizations competing for the most compelling coverage and journalists ignoring an evacuation advisory when the pyroclastic flow hit.

    The media personnel drew criticism for indirectly causing the deaths of police and fire corps members who came to the area to patrol due to reports of them entering houses evacuated by local residents to use electricity.

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