Japan survivors tell of tunnel horrors

A man who survived a tunnel collapse in Japan spoke Sunday of how a woman who crawled from a mound of debris begged him to help her friends and boyfriend trapped in a burning vehicle.

Another told of how he fled with his wife and children after trying and failing to get into a flaming car to rescue people inside in a horrifying incident on a highway that has so far claimed at least five lives.

Witnesses spoke of scenes of confusion in the nearly five-kilometre (three mile)-long tunnel, which passes through hills near Mount Fuji, as cars drove the wrong way to try to escape the cave-in and ensuing fire.

Officials have said five charred bodies have been found inside the tunnel on one of Japan's most important roads. They earlier said at least seven people were missing.

Other vehicles were believed to have been buried when the 20-centimetre- (eight-inch)-thick concrete roof panels caved in on the Tokyo-bound side of the Sasago tunnel, around 80 kilometres (50 miles) from the capital.

One man told the Jiji Press news agency he had watched in horror as concrete crashed down onto a vehicle in front of him, leaving little more than a mound of dust and debris.

Voices cried out "Help" and "Anyone please help" from the pile before a young woman emerged, barefoot and with her clothes torn, he was reported as saying.

She could not stop trembling, he told the agency, as he asked her how many had been inside the vehicle.

"She said: 'All of my friends and my boyfriend...Please help them.'" said the man, adding the flames were too strong.

Tomohiro Suzuki, 37, said he had jumped out of his car and rushed towards 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, adding there was a fire in its bonnet.

"I called the police as I thought it was impossible for me to rescue anyone inside."

Suzuki said people in the tunnel were in 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."

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 8:00am (2300 GMT Saturday), was temporarily halted when engineers said there was a risk of a secondary cave-in.

But by late afternoon it had been resumed, with teams of rescuers, along with heavy equipment, including car transporters, sent back inside the tunnel.

Footage from security cameras nearly ten hours after the collapse showed large concrete panels weighing up to 1.5 tonnes, 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.

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