MAEBASHI, GUNMA PREF. – Golden Week got off to a horrific start Sunday as a bus packed with tourists headed for Tokyo Disneyland ran edgewise into a wall on an expressway in Gunma Prefecture, killing seven people and injuring 39 others.
The bus, which left Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, at around 10 p.m. Saturday with 45 passengers, plowed into the leading edge of a 3-meter-high guard wall on the Kanetsu Expressway in Fujioka at around 4:40 a.m., police said. The wall sliced through its left side.
According to its final speedometer reading, the bus may have hit the wall at 92 kph.
The driver, Kazan Kono, 43, said he fell asleep at the wheel, police sources said, adding that no signs of a braking attempt were found at the scene. Kono was hospitalized with serious injuries but is expected to live.
Four of the fatalities were identified as Ikuko Hayashi, 50, Sachi Miyashita, 19, of Takayama, Toyama Prefecture, Masahiro Kizawa, 50, and Chikako Matsumoto, 29, of Kanazawa. Miyashita was the tour guide.
Kizawa’s 14-year-old daughter Misa survived but is in serious condition with a broken neck.
Some of those listed as seriously injured were identified as Momoko Kanahara, 29, Hifumi Kanahara, 53, Riho Oe, 18, Hirotaka Matsumoto, 50, Yoshiko Muranaka, 46, Hikaru Makiide, 23, Kazuma Takabatake, 24, Michiyo Iwagami, 46, and Masaya Doi, 23.
There were also passengers from Tokyo and Ibaraki prefectures on board.
The tour was organized by Harvest Holdings, based in Toyonaka in Osaka. The bus was run by Rikuentai, based in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture.
Rikuentai President Yumihide Hariu said Kono called him from the accident site.
“I’m sorry. I caused an accident and crashed into a wall,” Hariu quoted Kono as saying.
Police plan to question Kono on suspicion of manslaughter caused by negligent driving, but they are also looking at Rikuentai itself because no codriver was aboard.
Kono apparently drove from Disneyland to Kanazawa from Friday night to Saturday morning, before departing again at 10 p.m. Saturday for the ill-fated overnight journey back to Disney.
Police intend to investigate whether the bus company had planning problems, sources said.
Hariu arrived at police headquarters in Gunma later in the day and issued an apology.
“I’m really sorry. I take this very gravely,” he said.
Some of the passengers were scheduled to deboard in Tokyo’s Shinjuku and Yaesu districts before going on to Tokyo Disneyland, in neighboring Chiba Prefecture. The expressway was temporarily closed by the accident.