National / History

Relatives mark 30 years since JAL disaster with trek to mountain crash site

Kyodo

Relatives of those killed in the 1985 Japan Airlines jumbo jet crash commemorated the 30th anniversary of the tragedy on Wednesday, climbing to the accident site in the mountains northwest of Tokyo to pray for their loved ones.

In what is still the world’s deadliest single-carrier aircraft accident, JAL Flight 123 was traveling to Osaka with 524 passengers and crew aboard when it crashed on Mount Osutaka in Gunma Prefecture, killing all onboard except two women and two girls. The tragedy happened during the Bon summer holidays.

The relatives, carrying bouquets of flowers, climbed around 800 meters up a steep mountain trail to the crash site and prayed at grave markers and a monument located on Osutaka Ridge.

Haruo Nakamura, 72, who lost his 53-year-old brother-in-law Hiroshi Sada, prayed for the safety of transportation systems and all those who travel. He also expressed concern about low-cost carriers, which have become popular in recent years.

“Every year, on this day, I renew my wish that such a tragedy should never happen again,” Nakamura said, bringing two cans of beer, one for him and one for Sada.

“We always drank together so I am going to drink with him today” in front of his grave marker, Nakamura said. He said he was also praying on behalf of his absent 80-year-old sister Kazuko Sada.

“My sister has been training daily to climb to Osutaka Ridge but only a few days ago she fell ill and couldn’t come,” Nakamura said. “She was very disappointed, so I also prayed on her behalf.”

Like Sada, many of the families are now aging and find it harder to climb the mountain.

Friends of the victims were also among the climbers. Masumi Araki, 73, said she came to the site for the first time since the accident to pay tribute to her close friend and business partner Hiroshi Hayakawa.

“I’ve always been concerned about not having been able to come here but I’m glad I could come on a commemorative day,” Araki said.

JAL President Yoshiharu Ueki also climbed the trail, laid flowers at the monument and offered prayers for the victims.

“On my fourth visit here as the president of JAL, I offered my condolences and my apology for the 520 victims of the accident,” Ueki told reporters. “For an airline, providing safe transport is a ceaseless (effort).”

“Right at this moment, some 1,000 airplanes are flying. Our sole response to the victims and the bereaved families of the accident is to provide safe transport by maintaining high awareness of safety.”

Just over two weeks ago, a small private aircraft crashed into a residential area in western Tokyo, killing three people and injuring five as homes were set on fire.

In the evening, a memorial ceremony was to be held at Irei-no-sono (Memorial Garden) in the village of Ueno, Gunma Prefecture, at the foot of the mountain, with relatives, villagers and JAL officials attending.

Participants will light 520 candles — one for each victim — and offer silent prayers at 6:56 p.m., the time the Boeing 747 crashed into the mountain, around 40 minutes after taking off from Tokyo’s Haneda airport.

On Tuesday, the eve of the anniversary, relatives floated paper lanterns on a river near the site of the crash and prayed for loved ones and for transport safety.

As a choir group sang to an accordion accompaniment, the relatives quietly placed roughly 300 paper lanterns on the Kanna River in the village of Ueno, which runs at the foot of the crash site.

The lanterns bore messages such as “Wishing for transport safety” and “Will not forget the accident.”

The B-747 crashed into the mountainous area, located near the borders with Nagano and Saitama prefectures, after a rupture in the plane’s rear pressure bulkhead blew off its vertical stabilizer and destroyed its hydraulics, rendering the aircraft uncontrollable.

In 1987, a Japanese government investigation commission concluded that the accident was caused by improper repairs conducted by Boeing Co., the maker of the aircraft, on the pressure bulkhead that JAL did not detect in its maintenance checks.

In 1988, Gunma Prefectural Police charged 20 people with negligence, including Boeing employees, but prosecutors declined to seek indictment after Boeing refused to cooperate.

With the year marking the 30th anniversary of the accident, some of the relatives have started to speak out, in the hope that the tragedy will not be forgotten and the importance of transportation safety will be passed on to younger generations.

A group of relatives published a collection of essays this summer written by around 40 people close to the victims, including by a child born after the accident.

In 2006, JAL opened the Safety Promotion Center near Tokyo’s Haneda airport, a museum it positions as a “cornerstone of safety” to hand down the lessons from the accident and reconfirm the importance of flight safety.

The center, open to the public, displays the wreckage of the crashed jumbo jet and items including the collapsed pressure bulkhead, damaged passenger seats and passengers’ notes addressed to their families.