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2012-12-03 12:29

DEATH TOLL RISES: A tunnel collapsing in Japan has killed 9 people and rescuers are still searching for more bodies.

Hiroshi Hiyama

TOKYO, Japan - Rescuers today found three crushed bodies in a collapsed tunnel on a major Japanese highway, taking the death toll to nine as questions mounted about whether decaying ceiling supports caused the disaster.

At least three vehicles were buried the previous day when concrete panels crashed down inside the nearly five-kilometre tunnel through hills near Mount Fuji 80km west of Tokyo.

FINDING BODIES

Witnesses spoke of terrifying scenes as at least one vehicle burst into flames inside one of Japan's longest road tunnels, sending out clouds of blinding, acrid smoke.

Five blackened bodies were found in a single vehicle and emergency workers recovered the body of a truck driver, who had phoned his company to ask for help.

Later, the bodies of an elderly man and two elderly women were also recovered from a crushed vehicle in the Sasago tunnel on the Chuo Expressway, Kyodo News said, as attention turned to what caused the collapse.

An official from highways operator Nexco said material degradation was a possibility, as was a further collapse, although the ceiling had undergone its regular five-yearly inspection in September 2012.

Chikaosa Tanimoto, tunnel engineering professor at Osaka University, said the support panels were suspended from pillars. "It is conceivable that the parts connecting the ceiling panels and pillars, or the pillars themselves, deteriorated, affected by vibrations from earthquakes and passing vehicles."

Earthquakes are common in Japan, though none was reported in the area at the time of the collapse.

Emergency workers with breathing apparatus battled around a third of the way into the tunnel, where they found 110m of collapsed panel.

Engineers later warned the structure could be unstable, and the teams were recalled.

Dozens of people on Sunday abandoned their vehicles on the Tokyo-bound section of carriageway, and ran for the exits where they huddled in bitter winter weather.

The tunnel connects Tokyo with the centre and west of Japan just one of thousands of tunnels used daily by millions of commuters.

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