In June 2021, the city of Shimabara marked the 30th anniversary of the tragic June 3, 1991 eruption of Mt. Unzen Fugendake when a huge pyroclastic flow of hot volcanic ash and rocks killed 43 people. The huge, scalding dark cloud swept down Mizunashi River from the foot of the mountain and swiftly fanned out to where the victims mistakenly and tragically thought they were safe.
They included 16 media people, four taxi drivers, two policemen, 12 firemen, one American volcanologist, and two famous French volcanologists who were observing and filming the eruptions. They were on a ridge next to Mizunashi River with a perfect view of the erupting peak (lava dome) only 3.5 km away. The policemen and firemen died while urging the scoop-hungry media members to evacuate.
Shortly before his death, one of the French volcanologists said on camera, “I am never afraid because I have seen so many eruptions in 23 years that even if I die tomorrow, I don’t care.” It seems he didn’t care about his volcanologist wife either. She died too. They were still in their arrogant and invincible 40s. Prayers for all the victims and their grieving loved ones.
The high number of fatalities caused much debate about whether the authorities were too lax in preventing people from entering restricted areas or whether the deceased (especially the media people) were at fault for disobeying and entering the danger zone.
Unlike the fast-flowing fluid lava spewed by Hawaiian volcanoes, Unzen’s magma tended to solidify on the peak, forming a lava dome that plugged the volcano. This turned the mountain into a giant pressure cooker with explosive results.
Unzen is a cluster of mountains on a peninsula and the one that erupted is named “Fugendake” (elevation 1,359 meters). It’s part of Unzen-Amakusa National Park. The eruptions started in November 1990 when Fugendake ended almost 200 years of dormancy with two volcanic fissures letting off white steam. The eruptions were still on a minor scale, and most thought they would stop soon enough.
However, in May 1991, numerous pyroclastic flows and mudflows forced local residents to evacuate. The flows never reached the high ridge next to the river where the media photographers and other victims were until the big one on June 3, 1991. More and even bigger pyroclastic flows and mudflows continued in the following days and weeks. Hundreds of homes were destroyed.
The word “kasai-ryu” (pyroclastic flow 火砕流) thereby entered the common Japanese vocabulary. It was still a relatively rare and unknown volcanic phenomenon at the time.
A year after the tragic pyroclastic flow, the eruptions had ebbed enough to reopen Shimabara and Mt. Fugendake to tourists when these photos were taken. As you can see, Fugendake was still smoking (upper left photo). Most of the railways and roads had reopened. Near Mizunashi River was this desert of volcanic mud and rocks engulfing some homes like the one in the upper right photo. Mizunashi River had only mud, no water.
Nita Pass (仁田峠), a scenic lookout near the smoldering peak, was also open to tourists (lower left photo). From there, we could clearly see the trail of mud left by the pyroclastic and mudflows going down Mizunashi River toward the ocean (lower right photo). After 5.5 years, Fugendake’s volcanic activity was finally declared over in June 1996.
Nita Pass: http://www.unzen.org/e_ver/tourism/spot2.html
For the 30th anniversary of the Fugendake tragedy, local residents finally decided to clean up the observation point where the media members, etc., died and open it to the public as a disaster memorial and lesson for future generations. Families of the deceased had been coming to the area in recent years to pray for the victims. Local residents thought it was time to make the area more presentable and educational.
The ill-fated observation point was nicknamed “Teiten” (定点) by the deceased media members. It was on a ridge next to Mizunashi River where most mudflows and pyroclastic flows went through. Teiten had a great view of the lava dome and gave a perfect shooting angle to film the eruptions and pyroclastic flows. Previous pyroclastic flows had been smaller and never reached the high Teiten area. So they thought they were safe until the big one came down and killed them almost instantly. Their vehicles got blown away for tens of meters. The river bottom got elevated by over 100 meters with mud and large volcanic rocks. A series of barrier walls across the river have since been built in case Fugendake erupts again.
From January to March 2021, local landscape gardeners cleaned up the Teiten ridge. They cut the wild grass and weeds, built a prayer monument, put up signage explaining what happened, and made it more accessible.
In Feb. 2021, they also finally excavated the remains of the vehicles used by the deceased media members. The remains of the ill-fated police car and fire truck had already been unearthed and put on private display with reverence over 15 years ago by local residents.
However, the remains of the four cars (including taxi cabs) used by the mass media were left rusting and mostly buried on the Teiten site all these decades. Local residents didn’t bother to recover them until this spring. This perhaps reflects their long, seething anger toward the irresponsible media who also caused the deaths of local public servants trying to protect and evacuate them.
The landscape gardeners prayed and chanted a Buddhist sutra led by a priest before using heavy construction equipment to extract the deteriorating vehicles from the volcanic mud or wild grass. Only the rusting chassis, engine clump, and wheel rims remained. One car belonged to a Mainichi Shimbun newspaper photographer whose badly damaged telephoto camera lens and monopod were found where the car trunk was. When the two taxi cabs were lifted out of the dried mud, the president of the still-existing taxi company prayed for his deceased driver employees whom he knew personally.
The four recovered media/taxi cars are now displayed outdoors at the Teiten memorial site. After the 30th anniversary memorial ceremony, the Teiten memorial site opened to the public from June 3, 2021. Hopefully, this will finally bring some closure to local residents and the victim’s families.
News (English): http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/14176223
News (Japanese): https://www.news24.jp/articles/2021/03/22/07843659.html
News (Japanese): https://www.nishinippon.co.jp/item/n/711326/
・If you’re interested in disaster areas, visit the Mizunashi Honjin Roadside Station (みずなし本陣) to see outdoor exhibits of actual homes which were half buried by Fugendake mudflows (土石流被災家屋保存公園).
・Also visit the Mt. Unzen Disaster Memorial Hall (雲仙岳災害記念館) with excellent interactive exhibits explaining the Fugendake eruption. This museum and the Mizunashi Honjin Roadside Station are near the mouth of Mizunashi River.
Unzen Geopark: http://www.unzen-geopark.jp/en-first
・Shimabara Castle in central Shimabara is also worth seeing with great views of Mt. Fugendake.
・In 1997, the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo started the Maurice and Katia Krafft Memorial Fund in memory of the deceased French volcanologists who had also photographed eruptions at Mauna Loa. Hopefully their deaths and experiences are serving as valuable lessons for volcanologists.
Shimabara Peninsula is accessible by rail, bus, and ferry. From Hakata, Nagasaki, or Sasebo, take the Japan Railways to Isahaya Station and transfer to the Shimabara Railway to go to Shimabara Station (70 min.) or board an express bus to Unzen Onsen (90 min.). From Kumamoto Station, buses run to Kumamoto New Port where you board a ferry to Shimabara (60 min.).