National

Five still missing after predawn landslide kills one and buries homes in Oita's Yabakei valley

Kyodo

A massive landslide engulfed houses in a tourist town in Oita Prefecture early Wednesday morning, leaving one person dead and five others unaccounted for and severing a road leading to the site, local authorities said.

Landslides are often triggered by heavy rain or earthquakes, but none were reported in the area at the time, leading geological experts to attribute the landslide to weathering of the bedrock.

In a news conference on Wednesday evening, a team made up of such experts and government officials said the landslide was triggered by a crack on the surface of the bedrock caused by weathering, adding that they believed underground water had limited effect.

A mountain slope collapsed behind a group of houses at around 3:50 a.m. in the town of Yabakei, located in the scenic Yabakei Valley. The collapsed slope, covered in cedar, was about 200 meters in width and 100 meters in height, police said.

Yoshinori Iwashita, 45, was confirmed dead after rescue workers found him in the debris, according to the municipal government of Nakatsu.

Five women aged between 21 and 90 remain unaccounted for. Iwashita and the five were residing in three of the four houses hit by the landslide.

Some 200 police officers and firefighters are searching the area, and the Self-Defense Forces also launched a rescue mission at the site after the Oita Prefectural Government called for help.

“I am worried because all the residents are people I know,” said a 76-year-old man living some 2 kilometers from the landslide site.

The area has been designated by the prefectural government as a special area in which potential landslides could damage buildings and threaten the lives of residents.

While the prefectural government built fences to prevent rocks from falling down the mountain after wind struck down trees there in 1991, the fences do not prevent landslides.

Large rocks measuring several square-meters crushed the fences and rolled down in the latest landslide.

The town is part of the Yabahitahikosan quasi-national park. The Yabakei Valley draws 800,000 tourists every year, according to the municipal government.