A man who fled with his wife and children from a collapsed Japanese tunnel in which at least nine people died spoke Sunday of how he had been unable to get anyone out of a crushed and burning vehicle.
Tomohiro Suzuki said the nearly five-kilometre-long tunnel, passing through hills near Mount Fuji, had been the scene of confusion as cars drove the wrong way to try to escape the cave-in and ensuing fire.
At least five people are known to have died after being trapped inside their burning vehicle on one of Japan’s most important highways. Officials had said at least seven people were missing.
Other vehicles were believed to have been buried when the 20-centimetre-thick concrete panels caved in on the Tokyo-bound side of the Sasago tunnel, around 80 kilometres from the capital.
Mr. Suzuki, 37, said he had jumped out of his car and rushed toward a vehicle that had been crushed by the fallen concrete in a bid to rescue people inside.
“A part of the ceiling, just as wide as the road, had collapsed straight down and broken in the middle into a V-shape,” he told Jiji Press.
He told the agency there was a fire under the hood of the vehicle, but he could find no way in.
“I called the police as I thought it was impossible for me to rescue anyone inside.”
“I could hear after a while on the public address system that a fire has occurred inside the tunnel and the sprinkler system was going to be activated.”
Mr. Suzuki said people in the tunnel were in a panic, with cars starting to drive the wrong way to try to get out.
He gathered up his 38-year-old wife, Nishiki, and their two children, six and nine, and hurried them to safety as several dozen people rushed to get out.
“I was anxious as I could not see the exit,” he said.
“I kept wondering when the fire would spread and catch us. I tried to let my children get away first of all.”
Mr. Suzuki, from central Nagano prefecture, said it had taken him and his family about an hour to get out of the tunnel. By the time they got out, the fire had established itself and they could see smoke coming from the tunnel mouth.
A search-and-rescue operation, which swung into operation shortly after the collapse at around 8 a.m., was temporarily halted when engineers said there was a risk of a secondary cave-in.
But by late afternoon it had resumed, with teams of rescuers, along with heavy equipment, including car transporters, sent back inside the tunnel.
Footage from security cameras nearly 10 hours after the collapse showed large concrete panels still sitting in the V shape that Suzuki described, with men in protective gear scrambling over the top of them.
Broadcasters said they were working to get to at least one vehicle underneath the debris.
At the tunnel mouth, dozens of emergency service workers milled around. A number of tents had been set up, with crews apparently using them to co-ordinate their work.