AT least seven people were feared missing yesterday and several dead after about 150 concrete panels fell from the roof of a tunnel on the main highway linking Tokyo with central Japan.
Efforts to rescue any survivors trapped inside the tunnel were hindered by heavy smoke after one vehicle caught fire inside the Sasago Tunnel, about 50 miles outside Tokyo.
Rescuers also temporarily suspended work because of fears of a further collapse.
They were last night attempting to reach at least several vehicles believed to be buried in the rubble, including a truck whose driver was trapped inside and had called his company for help.
Motorists described narrow escapes from falling debris, and a long walk through the darkness after abandoning their cars.
“When I was driving in the tunnel, concrete pieces fell down suddenly from the ceiling,” a man in his 30s told public broadcaster NHK.
“I saw a crushed car catching fire. I was frightened, left my car and walked for about an hour to get out of the tunnel.”
“I could hear voices of people calling for help, but the fire was just too strong,” said another woman interviewed by NHK after she escaped from the tunnel.
The Fire and Disaster Management Agency issued a statement saying that five people were confirmed to have been in a car that burned inside the tunnel, and at least one other was in a truck.
However, officials said they could not confirm the exact number of people believed dead.
Executives for Central Japan Expressway said the company was investigating why the concrete panels had given way.
A check of the three-mile tunnel’s roof carried out in September and October found nothing amiss, they said.
It said two people were confirmed hurt, but the injuries were not severe.