UENO, GUNMA PREF. – The victims of the world’s deadliest single-plane crash were mourned on Friday as their kin climbed a steep mountainside in Gunma Prefecture where Japan Airlines Flight 123 crashed 31 years ago.
In an annual ritual, they prayed at a monument to the 520 passengers and crew who died on Osutaka Ridge on Aug. 12, 1985, when their Boeing 747 slammed into the peak after a catastrophic decompression crippled the plane.
“We want to convey this accident to children and create a safety culture,” said Kuniko Miyajima, 69, a representative of the families. Miyajima lost her 9-year-old son Ken in the accident and now conducts lectures on air safety.
Akizo Izutani, an 82-year-old resident of Kawachinagano, Osaka Prefecture, who lost his 20-year-old daughter Junko, said Friday’s visit was roughly his 80th trip to the crash site.
“There is no place I visit for my daughter other than here,” he said. “My family told me not to climb the ridge after I felt ill in May, but I want to keep climbing here as long as I live.”
JAL President Yoshiharu Ueki climbed the trail in the afternoon to pay his respects and reaffirm the carrier’s devotion to safety.
“Osutaka is the starting point for safety (issues),” he said on the ridge.
A total of 273 people from 77 families climbed the mountain Friday, according to the airline. The record of 406 people was set on the 30th anniversary last year.
In the evening, a memorial ceremony was held at Irei no sono (Memorial Garden) in the village of Ueno, Gunma Prefecture, with a moment of silence observed at 6:56 p.m., the time when the four-engine plane crashed after a valiant attempt by the pilots to get control of the plane.
Flight 123 was flying from Tokyo to Osaka with 524 passengers and crew aboard when a rupture in the plane’s rear pressure bulkhead blew off its vertical stabilizer, destroying the hydraulics and rendering the plane uncontrollable.
The accident, which happened during Bon, killed many vacationers and people heading home to see their families. Among the dead was 43-year-old singer Kyu Sakamoto, known for his hit “Sukiyaki.”
In 1987, a government investigation commission concluded the accident was the result of improper repairs by manufacturer Boeing Co. on the pressure bulkhead. JAL did not detect this in maintenance checks on the plane.
Police referred to prosecutors 20 people including Boeing employees for their alleged negligence in 1988, but it was decided eventually not to seek indictments after Boeing refused to cooperate.
The accident forced the airline to reflect on the importance of flight safety. Every year, its employees service the mountain trail before the anniversary so that relatives can climb to the accident site safely.
Hiroshi Soma, a 59-year-old JAL employee in charge of relatives’ affairs, died in late July after falling off the trail while working on the path with colleagues.