Tokyo, Dec 2: At least three motorists were killed when a 4.7-km-long tunnel on the Chuo Expressway in Japan's Yamanashi prefecture collapsed on them today.
Reports say scores of concrete panels on the Sasago tunnel's roof suddenly crashed down around 8 a.m local time, trapping the vehicles which were headed towards the Japanese capital.
Local media quoted witnesses as saying that one of the smashed cars burst into flames. Soon black smoke billowed from the tunnel's entrance, making it difficult for rescue workers to reach the injured motorists.
NHK channel's footage showed firefighters, police vehicles and an ambulance inside the smoke-darkened tunnel.
Though the blaze was brought under control by 11 a.m, the rescue operation was temporarily suspended as engineers warned that more sections of the tunnel could cave in.
Hours later when the rescuers entered the tunnel, they found three charred bodies in a vehicle. Despite the magnitude of the mishap, some persons miraculously survived.
Among them was a 28-year-old woman who walked out of the tunnel and then told fire department officials that she does not know what exactly happened to the five other occupants of the van in which she was travelling. Besides the woman, two other motorists have been rushed to nearby hospitals.
The company that operates the expressway has already apologised for its collapse. Routine checks last carried out in Sep this year did not reveal any defects in the tunnel, the company claimed.
A similar tunnel collapse in Japan claimed 20 lives back in 1996.