Tunnel collapses outside Tokyo, traps motorists

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TOKYO – At least seven people were feared dead after part of a highway tunnel collapsed Sunday in eastern Japan, trapping them in their vehicles and starting a fire that filled the tunnel with thick, black smoke.


Three vehicles appear to have been crushed under concrete that fell from the ceiling of the three-mile Sasago Tunnel near the city of Otsuki in Yamanashi prefecture, about 50 miles west of Tokyo, the national government’s disaster management agency said.


Agency and police officials said it remained unclear why the 150- to 200-foot section of eight-inch-thick concrete, weighing about 180 tons, suddenly fell.


A vehicle carrying six people caught fire, emitting heavy smoke that initially prevented firefighters from entering the tunnel. But even after putting out the blaze, rescuers had to temporarily suspend efforts to reach the trapped vehicles because of the danger of a further collapse, officials said.


They said rescue efforts resumed later in the day, though progress was slow because firefighters were still moving carefully.


Officials said a 28-year-old woman managed to flee from the vehicle that caught fire. She told firefighters that five other people remained trapped in her vehicle. It was unknown how many people were in the other vehicles besides the drivers, who were apparently also still trapped inside.


One of the other vehicles appeared to be a truck belonging to a food wholesaler, officials said. They said the driver called his company right after the accident to ask for help, but subsequent attempts to reach him by his cellphone failed.


The operator of the highway, Central Nippon Expressway, held a news conference to apologize for the accident.


The police said they had opened an investigation into the cause of the collapse and whether professional negligence by the operator was a factor.


The accident closed a section of the Chuo Expressway, a vital transportation artery connecting Tokyo to western Japan.


Such long tunnels – usually lined with smooth, white concrete – are a common sight on highways in this mountainous island nation.


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