Several people trapped inside their burning vehicle are dead after one of Japan's longest tunnels on a busy highway near Tokyo collapsed and caught fire on Sunday morning. More motorists are feared trapped amid ongoing rescue efforts.
Charred bodies had been found and more cars remained strapped after a section of the ceiling of the nearly 3-mile Sasago tunnel on Chuo Expressway, about 50 miles west of Tokyo, caved in Sunday morning.
"A number of charred bodies were confirmed inside. The number of dead is not known," Agence France-Presse quoted a spokesman for Yamanashi Prefectural Police as saying.
Several cars were trapped and black smoke was spewing from within the tunnel, Japan Broadcasting Corporation, locally known as NHK, reported.
Officials said a woman told them she did not know the whereabouts of five people she was with in a car, NHK added. Police are trying to confirm another report that about 20 vehicles are still inside the tunnel in addition to three cars that were under the debris.
A man who got out of the tunnel was quoted as saying that he was driving about 50 meters from the collapsed area. He said concrete on the ceiling fell suddenly and that he later saw fire coming from a smashed car. He said he felt scared, left his car at the site, and walked for about one hour to the exit.
A reporter from NHK, Yoshio Goto, was driving through the tunnel when the ceiling began to fall. He said he saw several cars trapped inside and thick smoke coming out of the tunnel's end. "I managed to drive through the tunnel but vehicles nearby appeared to have been trapped. Black smoke was coming and there seemed to be a fire inside the tunnel."
Fear of a further collapse initially prevented rescue workers from carrying on with their efforts for several hours. Rescue operation later resumed.
Authorities were yet to ascertain what caused the ceiling to collapse. It is being suspected that a landslide could have caused it. No earthquake was reported in the area at the time.
In 1996, a tunnel collapsed and crushed cars and a bus, killing 20 people, in Japan.