Japanese rescuers found five charred bodies in a highway tunnel that collapsed yesterday, crushing cars, triggering a blaze and sparking fears of another cave-in.
At least seven people were missing inside the nearly 5km-long tunnel. Witnesses spoke of terrifying scenes as at least one vehicle burst into flames, sending out clouds of blinding, acrid smoke.
For several hours rescuers were forced to suspend their efforts to reach those believed trapped under the more-than 1 tonne concrete ceiling panels that crashed from the roof as engineers warned more debris could fall.
Emergency crews who rushed to the Sasago tunnel on the Chuo Expressway, 80km west of Tokyo, were hampered by thick smoke billowing from the entrance.
Dozens of people abandoned their vehicles on the Tokyo-bound section of carriageway and ran for one of the emergency exits or for the mouth, where they huddled in bitter winter weather.
Emergency crews equipped with breathing apparatuses battled around one-third of the way into the tunnel, where they found 110m of concrete panels had come crashing down, crushing at least two vehicles.
Hours after the collapse, engineers warned the structure could be unstable, forcing rescuers to halt their work as a team of experts assessed the danger.
It was during this inspection that accompanying police officers confirmed the first deaths.
“What we found resembled bodies inside a vehicle, they were blackened. We have visually confirmed them, but have yet to take them out for closer examination,” an official said.
Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency later confirmed there were five bodies, adding another vehicle had also been burned.
One man who fled the tunnel told the Jiji Press news agency he had watched in horror as concrete crashed down onto a vehicle in front of him, leaving little more than a mound of dust and debris.
Voices cried out “Help” and “Anyone please help” from the pile before a young woman emerged with her clothes torn, he was reported as saying.
She could not stop trembling as he asked her how many had been inside the vehicle, he told the agency.
“She said: ‘All of my friends and my boyfriend ... Please help them,’” said the man, adding that the flames were too strong.
Footage from security cameras in the late afternoon showed large concrete panels in a V shape, apparently having collapsed from the middle, with teams of men in protective gear scrambling over them.
A fire department official said workers were still trying to reach a van in which at least one person was believed to be trapped.
Chikaosa Tanimoto, professor emeritus of tunnel engineering at Osaka University, told broadcaster NHK the concrete panels are suspended from pillars.
“It is conceivable that the parts connecting the ceiling panels and pillars, or pillars themselves, have deteriorated, affected by vibrations from earthquakes and passing vehicles,” he said.
An official from highways operator NEXCO said material degradation was a possibility, adding that the risk of further collapse remained. His colleague said the ceiling had undergone its regular five-yearly inspection in September.
The tunnel, which passes through hills near Mount Fuji, is one of the longest in Japan.
A man in his 30s, who was just 50m ahead of the caved-in spot, recounted details of the terrifying experience.
“A concrete part of the ceiling fell off all of a sudden when I was driving inside. I saw fire coming from a crushed car,” he told NHK.
“I was so frightened I got out of my car right away and walked one hour to get outside,” he said.