Survivor window closing in Japan landslide, 24 unaccounted for

Four people have been confirmed dead after the disaster in Atami in central Japan and officials said they were still unable to clarify the fate or whereabouts of 24 other residents.

Members of Self-Defense Forces and police officers search for missing persons at the scene of a landslide following days of heavy rain in Atami, in Shizuoka Prefecture on July 5, 2021. Picture: STR / JIJI PRESS / AFP

TOKYO, Japan - More than 1,000 soldiers and rescue workers joined an increasingly desperate search on Tuesday for survivors in a Japanese resort town devastated by a landslide three days ago.

Four people have been confirmed dead after the disaster in Atami in central Japan and officials said they were still unable to clarify the fate or whereabouts of 24 other residents.

Helicopter images showed a bleak line of sludge and rubble snaking down a hillside district of Atami, a popular hot-spring destination.

Rescuers trawled through destroyed homes and waded across vast piles of mud at the very end of the 72 hours that experts say are crucial in the race to save lives.

"There is only so much time left... We will give all we have during the time we have left and pray that we will be able to find as many people as possible," Atami Mayor Sakae Saito told a meeting of local officials on Tuesday morning.

At one point the number of residents unaccounted for stood at more than 100, but officials said they had managed to track most of them down and confirm they were safe.

"Those who remain unaccounted for stands at 24 individuals," Saito said at the televised meeting.

Confirming the number of people missing after the disaster has been complicated -- many families have summer homes in Atami but actually live elsewhere, while elderly residents may have moved to care homes, local media said.

The landslide descended in several violent waves on Saturday morning during Japan's annual rainy season.

It followed days of intense downpours in and around Atami, which is around 90 kilometres (55 miles) southwest of Tokyo.

Pylons were toppled, vehicles buried and buildings tipped from their foundations in the disaster, which wrecked 130 homes and other buildings.

City officials said on Monday they had identified one of the dead as 82-year-old Chiyose Suzuki.

Her eldest son Hitoshi, 56, told Kyodo that he regretted not bringing his mother -- who could not walk well -- with him when police told them to evacuate.

"I should have gone back and taken her out of there myself" instead of leaving her behind, he was quoted as saying.

Suzuki was taken to hospital by rescuers but died there.

Atami reportedly recorded more rainfall in 48 hours than it usually does for the whole of July, and survivors told local media they had never experienced such strong rain in their lives.

Scientists say climate change is intensifying Japan's rainy season because a warmer atmosphere holds more water.

In 2018, more than 200 people died as devastating floods inundated western Japan, and last year dozens were killed as the coronavirus pandemic complicated relief efforts.

Download the Eyewitness News app to your iOS or Android device.