Motorists feared trapped amid burning vehicles

Tunnel collapse kills four in Yamanashi

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

At least four people were killed and two injured Sunday in Yamanashi Prefecture after a tunnel on the Chuo Expressway collapsed, crushing vehicles and starting fires inside, police said.

Three of the victims were in a party of six traveling in a rented van that apparently caught fire after it was crushed. Authorities also said that a truck driver who called for help after being trapped had died, and said others could be stranded as well.

The accident took place in the 4.7-km Sasago Tunnel near Otsuki, about 80 km west of Tokyo, when about 180 concrete panels covering a 110-meter section of the ceiling collapsed at around 8 a.m., according to local police and the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

Two women, including one who managed to exit the van, were injured, according to fire official Kazuya Tezuka.

“I have no idea about what happened to the five others. I don’t know how many vehicles were ahead and behind ours,” the 28-year-old woman, who sustained moderate injuries, was quoted as saying.

The other woman, 37, escaped with minor injuries, hospital officials said.

A minicar also caught fire but was soon extinguished, firefighters said.

Firefighters suspended rescue operations at around 12:50 p.m. after the situation was deemed too dangerous to continue but resumed activity later in the day. The panels, measuring 5 meters by 1.2 meters, are 8 cm thick and weigh over 1 ton each.

Authorities closed off the busy expressway between the Otsuki and Katsunuma junctions and launched a criminal probe into its operator, Central Nippon Expressway Co., on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

At a hastily arranged news conference, the operator said no abnormalities were found during its last inspection in September.

Nippon Expressway President Takekazu Kaneko said the company would conduct emergency checks on other tunnels with similar ceilings.

Initial media reports hinted the situation could be much worse, but the expressway operator didn’t appear to have a clear grasp of the situation even though several hours had passed since the cave-in.

NHK footage taken from the tunnel in the early stages of the accident showed a white ambulance and several firefighters working in an area shrouded in smoke.

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 get 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.”

The thick smoke was hampering attempts to reach the cave-in, which is about 2 km from the Tokyo-side exit, fire official Tezuka said.

“The tunnel’s smoke ventilation system is malfunctioning and we can’t see anything 1 meter in front,” he said.

Dozens of people were seen waiting at an expressway bus stop just outside the exit, and were believed to have exited from the tunnel, NHK said.

A man in his 30s who was just 50 meters ahead of the cave-in when it happened recounted 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 an hour to get outside,” he told NHK.

“The traffic was not so heavy,” he added.

A stream of people was seen coming out the other exit after abandoning their vehicles, the broadcaster said.

The tunnel, which passes through hills not far from Mount Fuji, is one of the longest in Japan and sits on a major highway connecting Tokyo with the center and west of the country.