KOSHU, Japan: Japanese rescuers found five charred bodies in a highway tunnel that collapsed, crushing cars, triggering a blaze and sparking fears of another cave-in.
At least seven people were missing inside the nearly 5-kilometre-long tunnel. Witnesses spoke on Sunday of terrifying scenes as at least one vehicle burst into flames, sending out clouds of blinding, acrid smoke.
Rescuers were forced to suspend their efforts to reach those believed to be trapped under thick concrete ceiling panels for several hours when engineers warned more debris could fall.
Emergency crews who rushed to the Sasago tunnel on the Chuo Expressway, 80 kilometres west of the capital, were hampered by thick smoke billowing from the entrance.
Dozens of people abandoned their vehicles on the Tokyo-bound section of carriageway, and ran for one of the emergency exits or for the mouth, where they huddled in bitter winter weather.
Emergency crews equipped with breathing apparatus battled around a third of the way into the tunnel, where they found up to 70 metres of concrete panels had come crashing down, crushing at least two vehicles.
The Fire and Disaster Management Agency later confirmed there were five bodies, adding another vehicle had also been burnt.
By late afternoon the operation had resumed. Footage from security cameras showed large concrete panels in a V shape, apparently having collapsed from the middle, with teams of men in protective gear scrambling over them.
One 28-year-old woman who emerged from the smoke-darkened tunnel by herself told rescuers she had been in a rented van with five other people, fire department official Kazuya Tezuka said.
‘‘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.
A truck driver who telephoned a colleague from inside the tunnel was also believed to be trapped.
The tunnel, which passes through hills not far from Mount Fuji, is one of the longest in Japan. It sits on a major road connecting Tokyo with the centre and west of the country.
Morning & Afternoon Newsletter