Nine killed in highway tunnel collapse in Japan

Posted at 7:00 AM, Dec 03, 2012
and last updated 2012-12-03 07:04:10-05

TOKYO (CNN) – Nine bodies – eight of them burned – have been pulled from vehicles crushed in a tunnel collapse about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Tokyo, a highway police spokesperson said Monday.

Five of the bodies were recovered in one charred station wagon, and three others were in another burned vehicle, according to the police spokesperson. The other fatality was in a truck.

The Sasago tunnel on the Chuo Expressway remained closed Monday morning, one day after the cave-in occurred on the highway’s Tokyo-bound lanes, police from the nearby city of Otsuki said.

Officials from the East Yamanashi Fire Department said the section of concrete that fell was about 50 to 60 meters long and about 20 centimeters (8 inches) thick.

“Cars in front of us were crushed. It was terrifying,” a man who witnessed the collapse told CNN affiliate TV Asahi.

“I don’t think I could ever drive through the tunnel again,” he said.

Soon after the collapse, Japanese public broadcaster NHK aired images showing smoke rising, a blue car with its side smashed in, and emergency vehicles on the scene.

Crews worked through the night as snow fell outside, trying to get to victims. All the while they were wary that the tunnel might collapse further. Those efforts continue, and authorities have not said if they believe more bodies will be found.

The Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism said it had ordered emergency inspections of about 49 tunnels nationwide that have a similar ceiling structure to the Sasago tunnel.

The privately held Central Nippon Expressway Company operates the 4.7-kilometer-long Sasago tunnel, among others, as well as expressways and toll roads around Japan.

Central Nippon Expressway conducts annual inspections of the tunnel, with one particularly thorough inspection held every five years, a company spokesperson said. A more intensive inspection of the Sasago tunnel was held sometime in the past two to three months, the spokesperson added.

The Chuo Expressway is a particularly busy stretch of highway that runs between Tokyo and, among other places, Mount Fuji.

While it is a ways from the Japanese capital, the partial tunnel collapse and its subsequent closure is expected to cause major traffic disruption, especially for those who rely on it for business.

Authorities have not given any indication as to when they expect the tunnel to reopen, nor is it clear why the collapse occurred.