One day after the collapse of the Sasago Tunnel in Yamanashi Prefecture that has killed at least nine people about 85 kilometers (53 miles) west of Tokyo, operator Central Japan Expressway Co. stated at a press conference on Monday that the accident may have been caused by aging ceiling bolts that failed to concrete panels in place. Ryoichi Yoshikawa, the company’s head of maintenance, said it appears the bolts were never replaced or missing, and there were no records of repair work being done in the past.
The tunnel originally opened in 1977, and while the expressway company says inspections in September found nothing wrong, they did not carry out hammer tests on section of ceiling that collapsed. Yoshikawa explained that hammer tests are used to in order to find irregularities in areas not accessible through sound, and they should have been done. Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism says there are 49 other tunnels in the country that use the same construction design as Sasago, and expressway operators have been ordered to conduct emergency safety inspections.
The fatal collapse took place on Sunday morning around 8:00 AM, with about 180 of the concrete panels falling from the ceiling, each one weighing 1.2 tons. Approximately 30 cars were trapped inside as a result, and as firefighters and rescue workers arrive, people could be seen fleeing from the tunnel on foot. Those that escaped say they could hear the cries of others still trapped calling out for help. Nine people have been confirmed as dead as of Monday, with five killed in a car that was on fire, and a truck driver in his 50s who managed to call his employers for help immediately after the accident, but died before rescue workers could reach him.
In what could be one of the most inadequate apologies since the Fukushima crisis, Central Japan Expressway Co.’s Yoshikawa ended his statement to the press by adding that the lack of thorough inspections was something the company will need to reflect on, and in offering condolences they will deal with the accident victims in a “sincere manner.”