Five killed in Japan as expressway tunnel ceiling collapses onto traffic

Charred bodies found inside burned cars after concrete panels fall onto expressway

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 December, 2012, 4:31am


Japanese rescuers found five charred bodies in an expressway tunnel that collapsed yesterday, crushing cars and triggering a blaze, and sparking fears of another cave-in.

At least seven people were missing inside the nearly five-kilometre-long tunnel. Witnesses spoke of terrifying scenes as at least one vehicle burst into flames, sending out clouds of blinding, acrid smoke.

Engineers warned that more debris could fall, which meant that for several hours rescuers were forced to suspend their efforts to reach those believed trapped under the more than one tonne of concrete ceiling panels that crashed from the roof.

Emergency crews sent to the Sasago tunnel on the Chuo Expressway in Koshu city, 80 kilometres west of Tokyo, were hampered by smoke billowing from the entrance.

Dozens of people abandoned their vehicles on the Tokyo-bound section of the carriageway and ran for one of the emergency exits or for the mouth, where they huddled in bitter winter weather.

Emergency crews with breathing apparatus battled around a third of the way into the tunnel, where they found the 110 metres of concrete panels had crushed 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 yet to take them out for closer examination," an official said.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency later confirmed five deaths, adding another vehicle was also burned.

One man who fled the tunnel told the Jiji Press news agency that he had watched in horror as concrete crashed down onto a vehicle in front of him.

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'," he said, adding the flames were too strong.

Chikaosa Tanimoto, professor emeritus of tunnel engineering at Osaka University, told NHK that the concrete panels were 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.

A man in his 30s, who was just 50 metres ahead of the caved-in spot, told the NHK public broadcaster: "A concrete part of the ceiling fell off all of a sudden when I was driving inside [the tunnel]. I saw fire coming from a crushed car. I was so frightened I got out of my car right away and walked one hour to get outside."