NAGANO – Fourteen people died and 26 were injured when a packed bus on an overnight journey crashed in the early hours on Friday. It was the worst toll from a bus accident in decades.
The bus was carrying 41 people bound for a ski resort when it plunged off National Route 18 about 2 kilometers south of Karuizawa Station in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture.
Most of the passengers were young. Nine men and five women died, and most of the injured were teenagers and people in their early 20s, according to local police and firefighters.
The two drivers on the bus — 65-year-old Hiroshi Tsuchiya, who was driving at the time, and 57-year-old Keizo Katsuhara — were among the dead, according to the bus operator, ESP. Keyth Tour, the travel agency that arranged the tour, said the passengers ranged in age from 18 to 38.
Many of the passengers were not wearing seat belts, survivors said. They said no announcements were made to do so prior to departure.
Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology said two of its students died and two others were injured.
Tokyo Metropolitan University said five of its students were aboard, one of whom was among the dead.
Waseda University, Hosei University and Tokai University also said they had students who were aboard and confirmed dead.
A 19-year-old female university student who was accompanying a friend on the trip to go snowboarding said she was sleeping when the bus swayed and passengers screamed. She was thrown from the vehicle, sustaining minor injuries to her neck and shoulders.
“I still cannot reach my friend who was sitting beside me,” she said.
The injured were taken to hospitals.
The bus was en route to Madarao Kogen ski resort in northern Nagano Prefecture. It departed Tokyo on Thursday night and the accident happened at around 2 a.m. The road was not icy and no clear braking marks have been found, police said.
Aerial images show the bus left the road on a bend marked with a speed warning painted on the asphalt, although the paint was faded.
Tire marks from only one side of the bus were visible at the accident site, an investigative panel’s survey commissioned by the transport ministry showed, a finding that suggests the bus was leaning to one side as it slid off the road.
The transport ministry set up an accident headquarters and conducted a special audit of the bus operator while requesting an accident investigation board to look into the case.
“(The bus) appeared to ram into the right lane guardrail after touching the left lane guardrail in the traveling direction. Breaking through the guardrail, it downed trees,” Junzo Yamamoto, a senior vice minister of the ministry, told reporters after inspecting the site.
The Tokyo Labor Bureau separately searched the offices of ESP, in Hamura in suburban Tokyo, and of Keyth Tour in central Tokyo for possible violations of the labor law.
On Wednesday, ESP had been slapped with an administrative disposition by transport authorities to suspend operation of one of the seven vehicles it owns for 20 days for a range of breaches, including failing to have its drivers undergo health checkups, transport ministry sources said.
Later Friday, the Nagano Prefectural Police also searched ESP’s office.
ESP Director Takato Yamamoto issued an apology to the families of the passengers and said he will accept whatever dispositions are given over the case.
While the bus crashed on a road it was not initially planned to take, Yamamoto said drivers are allowed to avoid highways and take alternative routes to adjust their arrival times.
Keyth Tour President Mankichi Fukuda, 38, apologized for the accident and said his company was putting priority on contacting the families of the passengers.
He defended the company’s adherence to safety: “We have been following the law,” he said, adding that he believed there was no safety problems.
The bus, which was full, strayed onto the wrong side of the road and plowed through the guard rail. The vehicle sustained heavy damage and many passengers were trapped, police said.
Police said a female passengers raised the alarm by making an emergency call just after the accident took place.
The accident occurred at a time when the transport ministry had tightened safety measures for operators of highway buses, following a series of fatal accidents linked to overwork.
The measures included limiting a bus driver’s nighttime traveling distance to 400 km, thus requiring two drivers on longer distance travel.
The accident was the deadliest since police started keeping detailed records in 1990, though police officials said there were several other bus accidents with a large death toll in earlier years, including one in which a ski tour bus plunged into a river in Nagano Prefecture in January 1985, killing 25 people.