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7 high school boys, 1 teacher die in avalanche in climbing lesson

Seven senior high school boys and one teacher died in an
avalanche Monday during a springtime climbing lesson on a ski slope
in eastern Japan, local authorities said, making it one of the
deadliest snowslide disasters in Japan in decades.

Forty more people were injured in the avalanche that occurred in
Tochigi Prefecture and about 120 kilometers north of Tokyo, according
to a fire department which received an emergency call at around 9:20
a.m.

Police began investigating the case, focusing on why the lesson
was conducted despite the heavy snowfall overnight.

Some 33 centimeters of new snow had accumulated by 9 a.m.,
prompting the Japan Meteorological Agency to issue an avalanche
advisory. Rescue workers, with their feet sinking deep into the snow,
searched for students as they heard some moaning from beneath.

The seven boys and the teacher belonged to a competitive high
school mountain club and were engaging in an exercise to wade through
deep snow when they were hit by an avalanche at around 8:30 a.m. at
Nasuonsen Family Ski Resort, which had closed for the ski season last
week.

The club was engaged in a three-day climbing lesson which began
Saturday, hosted by the prefecture's high school athletic federation.

A total of 51 students and 11 teachers from seven high schools
were taking part in the three-day program, including the eight
victims from the prefectural-run Otawara High School.

The participants woke up at 5 a.m. Monday and a teacher in
charge of the program decided to conduct the winter mountain exercise
of forming a line and moving through snow on the ski slope instead of
climbing the nearby Mt. Nasu as initially planned.

Forty students and eight teachers left a lodge at around 7:30
a.m. to engage in the exercise. They are likely to have been engulfed
by the snowslide at a steep slope area, after they proceeded about
400 to 500 meters.

A 16-year-old student told reporters at a hospital where he was
taken after he was rescued that he heard someone shout "Avalanche!"
but he has no recollection of the moment he was hit by the snow
because he was "too scared."

"I was buried in snow up to my chest before I knew. I thought
'I'm saved,' when I found my head was not covered with snow," he said.

Some experts have pointed to the possibility of a so-called
"surface avalanche," which is a sliding of a layer of new snowfall.

The central government has set up a task force at the crisis
management center of the prime minister's office.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said during a parliamentary session
that his government "will make every effort to respond to the
disaster, while making it a top priority to rescue victims" of the
avalanche.

The Tochigi prefectural police and the fire department finished
transferring the injured people to hospitals by Monday night. The
Self-Defense Forces also joined the rescue operations. (March 28)


Officials are involved in rescue operations as seen in this photo taken from a Kyodo News helicopter on a ski slope in Nasu, eastern Japan, on March 27, 2017, where high school students were among those hit by an avalanche during a springtime climbing lesson. It was reported that eight people including students showed no vital signs, while over 30 people were injured. (Kyodo)