Japanese rescuers have found nine bodies in a highway tunnel that collapsed, crushing cars and triggering a blaze, and sparking fears of another cave-in.
The 4.7km long Sasago tunnel in Yamanashi prefecture, about 80km west of Tokyo, caved in on Sunday. The tunnel, one of Japan’s longest, is on the main road connecting the capital to the country’s west.
At least seven people were still missing, and witnesses spoke of terrifying scenes as at least one vehicle burst into flames, sending out clouds of blinding, acrid smoke.
Emergency crews equipped with breathing apparatus battled around a third of the way into the tunnel, where they found 110 metres of concrete panels had come crashing down, crushing at least two vehicles.
A comprehensive rescue effort was launched but more than five hours after the incident, workers pulled out of the tunnel because of concerns that more of the roof might collapse, a fire official told the AFP news agency.
The cave-in happened on Tokyo-bound lanes of the tunnel on the Chuo Expressway at around 8am (23:00 GMT Saturday), an official at the expressway traffic police said.
“Concrete ceiling panels, 20 centimetres thick, collapsed over 50-60 metres,” an official from the East Yamanashi Fire Department told AFP by telephone.
“At least two vehicles were trapped under the debris. Another, a light vehicle, caught fire but the fire was under control, meaning almost extinguished, as of 11:00am (02:00 GMT),” he said.
NHK footage from inside the tunnel showed a white ambulance and several firefighters wearing protective gear, working in a section shrouded in smoke. A number of cars with their lights flashing were also seen.
“According to information from local fire authorities, seven people are missing but the number has not been confirmed,” an official at the government’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency told AFP.
The fire department official said emergency crews had pulled out of the tunnel shortly before 1pm “due to the possibility of a secondary collapse”.
A 28-year-old woman was taken to hospital by ambulance after she emerged from the tunnel by herself, a traffic police official said.
The woman told the fire rescue unit she had been travelling in a rented van with five other people, fire department official Kazuya Tezuka told AFP by telephone.
“I have no idea about what happened to the five others. I don’t know how many vehicles were ahead and behind ours,” she was quoted as saying.