Japan Tunnel Collapse: Five People Dead

Mark Stone, Asia Correspondent
Japan Tunnel Collapse: Five People Dead

Police say at least five people have died after being trapped inside their burning vehicle in a highway tunnel that collapsed in Japan.

The Sasago tunnel on the busy Chuo Expressway, about 50 miles (80 km) west of Tokyo, caved in just after 8am local time.

CCTV footage from inside the tunnel shows large sections of the roof lying across the road. 

Several cars are understood to have been crushed and a fire in the tunnel has complicated the rescue effort. Seven people are still missing.

Motorists described narrow escapes from falling debris, and a long walk through the darkness after abandoning their cars.

"When I was driving in the tunnel, concrete pieces fell down suddenly from the ceiling," a man in his 30s told public broadcaster NHK.

"I saw a crushed car catching fire. I left my car and walked for about an hour to get out of the tunnel."

Another said: "I could hear voices of people calling for help, but the fire was just too strong."

Aerial footage showed black smoke billowing from the 2.8-mile (4.7-km) tunnel in Yamanashi prefecture.

The fire was extinguished about 11am local time but the rescue and recovery operation has been delayed by concerns that there could be further collapses.

The cause of the collapse is not yet clear. There are no reports of earthquakes in the region though there is a suggestion that a landslide could have contributed to the incident.

Given the frequency of earthquakes in the region, the authorities will have access to rescue equipment which will prove useful for this sort of operation.

NHK reporter Yoshio Goto, caught in Sunday's accident, hit the accelerator and managed to drive out.

"But it was a bit too late and pieces of ceiling fell on my car. I kept pressing the pedal and managed to get out," he said.

"Then when I looked around, I saw half of the car ceiling was crushed."

It was the worst such accident in Japan since 1996, when a tunnel collapsed and falling rocks crushed cars and a bus, killing 20 people.