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Kin of expressway tunnel collapse victims sue operator

Kyodo

A group of parents filed a lawsuit Wednesday seeking ¥890 million in damages from Central Nippon Expressway Co., operator of a tunnel that collapsed in December and killed nine people.

In the suit filed at the Yokohama District Court, the families of five of the nine people killed blamed the operator for failing to repair the aging structure.

The tunnel had not undergone any major work on the ceiling since it opened in 1977. The disaster goaded authorities to inspect aging tunnels across the country.

The bodies of the five victims — three men and two women, all in their 20s from Tokyo — were found in three vehicles trapped in the 4.7-km-long Sasago Tunnel on the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi Prefecture on the morning of Dec. 2, 2012.

The parents said they wanted to shed light on the cause of the accident and prevent a recurrence.

Ceiling slabs collapsed in a section of tunnel stretching for around 130 meters, according to the police and Central Nippon Expressway. Based on an investigation by a transport ministry panel, anchor bolts used to secure the steel structure to the tunnel ceiling probably failed.

The lawsuit stated that the Nagoya-based operator and a Tokyo-based subsidiary in charge of inspections failed to conduct repairs on the ceiling despite its age. They also failed to conduct tests to check the anchor bolts in September.

Central Nippon Expressway said of the lawsuit that it will continue to make efforts in “good faith.”

The five victims named in the suit — Yohei Kobayashi, 27, Shigeyuki Mori, 27, Rei Matsumoto, 28, Wataru Ueda, 27, and Yuri Ishikawa, 28 — lived together in Tokyo and had been on a sightseeing trip to Yamanashi. The lawsuit was filed in Yokohama because one of the plaintiffs lives in Kanagawa Prefecture.

“I still can’t come to grips that we are involved in this case,” Kunio Matsumoto and his wife, Kazuyo, both 62, said while holding a photo of their daughter, Rei.

They said they have been unable to do anything with their daughter’s belongings even though several months have passed since the accident.

She was their eldest daughter and was named after a sound made by jewelry brushing against each other.

They described her as an independent woman who loved music. After taking a year off following high school, she studied acoustical engineering at Oita University, where she played sax in a jazz band. She also studied in Germany.

Her parents said Matsumoto finished her graduate studies in March 2011 and obtained a job, shortly thereafter joining the “share house” in Chiyoda Ward with the other tunnel victims.

Kazuyo Matsumoto, who had heard from her daughter that the roommates often went on weekend road trips, was glued to the television when the news broke. She sent her daughter an email asking her where she was spending her Sunday but received no reply. A phone call from the Yamanashi Prefectural Police broke the agonizing news.

It was four days later that the body was identified.

The corpse was heavily damaged, but her parents said they were able to spend one last time with her, even though her body was lying beneath a small futon. A music memorial was held for her at a hall in their hometown of Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

In late March, the Yamanashi Prefectural Police allowed family members to see the station wagon in which the roommates were fatally injured. The second-row seat, where Matsumoto was sitting when the tunnel roof fell, was about half its original size.

Kunio Matsumoto filed a request with Central Nippon Expressway to preserve the car as is “to pass along the tragic accident to future generations.”

Her parents said Matsumoto had been eager to start a career in acoustic engineering. She had just started taking her first step at a company in Tokyo as an engineer, at times wearing a helmet and overalls to get her job done on the scene. Some situations required her to wear a safety lifeline. “I feel like a civil engineer,” she’d often say proudly, according to her family.

The parents said they can’t help but mourn her lost future.

Her belongings, which have been packed into 20 to 30 boxes, remain untouched.

Kunio Matsumoto worked as a teacher while Kazuyo Matsumoto was a temporary employee for the city of Ashiya. However, both quit their jobs in March, citing “lack of motivation.”

On May 7, Central Nippon Expressway Chairman Takekazu Kaneko visited their home and apologized for the accident.

“I understand how he feels, but this is the same as if our daughter was murdered. Our sadness remains,” Kunio Matsumoto said. “We will fight in court to clarify the responsibilities of the organization for not providing proper maintenance and conservation.”