Japan Sasago tunnel collapse killed nine

The BBC's Rupert Wingfield Hayes says emergency inspections of other sections of the tunnel - and of other tunnels in Japan - are taking place

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Nine people are now confirmed to have died after a major tunnel collapsed in Japan, officials say.

The bodies were found in three vehicles that were crushed by fallen concrete panels in the Sasago tunnel, about 80km (50 miles) west of the capital Tokyo.

A fire broke out after the tunnel caved in on Sunday, and a number of survivors fled to safety on foot.

The usually busy tunnel remains closed, as police are investigating potential negligence.

There will be serious questions about how a major tunnel on one of Japan's most important traffic arteries could have failed so catastrophically, the BBC's Rupert Wingfield Hayes in Tokyo reports.

The private company that runs the highway has said the tunnel was given a major inspection just two months ago and was given a clean bill of health, our correspondent adds.

Survivors' stories
Smoke billows from the Sasago tunnel (Kyodo news agency/Reuters)

Emergency workers said that five bodies were recovered from a van early on Monday. They were identified as three men and two women, all in their twenties and from Tokyo, Kyodo news agency reported.

Another woman, aged 28, who had been in the vehicle survived.

Three bodies were found in a car and another body in a lorry.

The driver of the lorry had reportedly telephoned for help from inside the 4.3km (2.7 miles) twin-bore tunnel - one of the longest in Japan.

Part of the tunnel collapsed at 08:00 local time (23:00 GMT Saturday).

Thick black smoke was seen billowing from the tunnel, hampering rescue efforts.

Pictures from closed circuit TV cameras inside the tunnel later showed a section of up to 100m (328ft) that had caved in on the Tokyo-bound lanes on the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi prefecture.

A reporter for public broadcaster NHK described driving through the tunnel as it began to collapse, seeing other cars trapped and on fire. His car was badly damaged, he said.

Another survivor told the broadcaster that he saw "a concrete part of the ceiling fall off all of a sudden when I was driving inside. I saw a fire coming from a crushed car".

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Survivor Tomohiro Suzuki said: "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 and his family walked for an hour to get out, with the smoke worsening.

"I heard after a while on the public address system that a fire had occurred inside the tunnel and the sprinkler system was going to be activated," he told Jiji Press.

"I kept wondering when the fire would spread and catch us," Mr Suzuki said.

Japan is prone to large earthquakes, but none was reported in the area at the time.

Some experts have said that structural failure may be to blame - but this has not been confirmed by the authorities.

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