At least five dead in Japan tunnel collapse and fire
- Published: 2/12/2012 at 03:48 PM
- Online news:
Otsuki, Japan: Rescuers in Japan have confirmed at least five people died after being trapped inside their burning vehicles in a highway tunnel that collapsed on Sunday, a spokesman told AFP.
"A number of charred bodies were confirmed inside'' a vehicle, said a spokesman for Yamanashi Prefectural Police.
The Fire and Disaster Management Agency later confirmed there were five bodies, adding another vehicle had also been burned.
"Other vehicles are believed to have been buried,'' it said in a statement released late in the afternoon.
A local fire department spokesman said it may take a while for rescue workers to remove the bodies and to find other people who were trapped inside.
"We are going into the tunnel and clearing debris. There is no telling as to when we can actually pull the individuals out,'' he told AFP.
The discovery of burned corpses was reported as police officers, a local professor and highway engineers surveyed the extent of the collapse inside the tunnel, a fire service spokesman said.
The search-and-rescue operation, which had been suspended because of the risk of another collapse, was back on by late afternoon.
A team of 14 rescue workers returned to the tunnel at 4:16 pm (2:16pm Thailand time) shortly after the bodies were found, along with heavy equipment, including car transporters, the fire brigade spokesman said.
Smoke billows from the entrance of the collapsed Sasago tunnel as police and fire workers (bottom) gather in preparation for their rescue operation. (Photo by AFP)
Earlier reports said at least seven people were trapped inside the highway tunnel after it collapsed, setting a car ablaze and raising fears of another cave-in that forced a halt to rescue efforts.
Two vehicles were crushed in the original collapse and one other was set ablaze when large concrete ceiling panels fell inside one of Japan's longest motorway tunnels at nearly five kilometres long.
A comprehensive rescue effort was launched but more than five hours after the incident, workers pulled out of the tunnel because of concerns of a further collapse.
The cave-in happened on Tokyo-bound lanes of the Sasago tunnel on the Chuo Expressway, 80 kilometres west of the capital, at around 8am (6am Thailand time), an official at the expressway traffic police said.
"Concrete ceiling panels, 20 centimetres thick, collapsed over 50-60 metres,'' an official from the East Yamanashi Fire Department said.
"At least two vehicles were trapped under the debris. Another, a light vehicle, caught fire but the fire was under control, meaning almost extinguished, as of 11am,'' he said.
NHK footage from inside the tunnel showed a white ambulance and several firefighters wearing protective gear, working in a section shrouded in smoke. A number of cars with their lights flashing were also seen.
"According to information from local fire authorities, seven people are missing but the number has not been confirmed,'' an official at the government's Fire and Disaster Management Agency said.
A 28-year-old woman was taken to hospital by ambulance after she emerged from the tunnel by herself, a traffic police official said.
The woman told the fire rescue unit she had been travelling in a rented van with five other people, fire department official Kazuya Tezuka said.
"I have no idea about what happened to the five others. I don't know how many vehicles were ahead and behind ours,'' she was quoted as saying.
The tunnel, which passes through hills not far from Mount Fuji, is one of the longest in Japan at 4.7-kilometres long, according to the highway operator, and sits on a major road connecting Tokyo with the centre and west of the country.
One fire department official said emergency workers had taken two women to hospital.
"Both were conscious. One of them, 28, suffered injuries to the head, face and and both hands. The other, 37, suffered bruising,'' he said.
"A truck driver inside the tunnel called a colleague for help. So he appeared to be trapped in his vehicle. An ambulance is on its way to him,'' he added.
Rescue workers and police gather outside the Sasago tunnel after part of the tunnel collapsed. (Photo by AFP)
A reporter for NHK said he happened to be driving through the tunnel on his way to Tokyo when it started to disintegrate.
"I managed to drive through the tunnel but vehicles nearby appeared to have been trapped,'' he said. "Black smoke was coming and there seemed to be a fire inside the tunnel.''
Thick smoke inside the tunnel had hampered rescuers' attempts to reach the caved-in point, two kilometres from the Tokyo-side exit, the fire department's Mr Tezuka said.
Aerial footage on NHK showed several red trucks from the local fire department waiting outside the Tokyo side of the tunnel.
Dozens of people were seen waiting at an expressway bus stop just outside the exit. They were believed to have exited from the tunnel, NHK said.
A man in his 30s, who was just 50 metres ahead of the caved-in spot when the incident happened, recounted details of the terrifying experience.
"A concrete part of the ceiling fell off all of a sudden when I was driving inside. I saw a fire coming from a crushed car. I was so frightened I got out of my car right away and walked one hour to get outside,'' he told NHK.
"The traffic was not so heavy,'' he added.
A stream of people was seen coming out of the other exit after abandoning their vehicles in the tunnel, the broadcaster said.
Japan has an extensive and well-maintained network of highways throughout its mountainous terrain, with thousands of tunnels, usually several hundred metres long. Millions of cars use the network every day.
About the author
- Writer: AFP
Position: News agency