Around seven people are believed to have been trapped under rubble, following the collapse of a section of ceiling in the Sasago tunnel on the Chuo expressway in Koshu City, Yamanashi prefecture, Japan on Sunday. (Updated).
The 4.7-kilometer Sasago tunnel is located on the Chuo Expressway, between the cities of Otsuki and Koshu in the Yamanashi Prefecture, some 80 kilometers west of Tokyo.
At 08:00 local time on Sunday (23:00 GMT Saturday), the ceiling in the highway tunnel collapsed, two cars were immediately crushed and several others set ablaze. Emergency workers have recovered several burned bodies from the scene and at least three people are injured.
Rescue workers and policemen with emergency services vehicles have been working at the entrance of the collapsed tunnel, where at least seven people are believed to be trapped.
The video above includes CCTV footage from inside the tunnel, showing clearly the collapsed ceiling sections.
Thick smoke inside the tunnel is making work difficult for firefighters, who are wearing breathing gear which limits their line of sight.
According to an East Yamanashi Fire Department official, around 50-60 meters of the ceiling was affected in the initial collapse, and the affected area is around two kilometers from the Tokyo side of the tunnel. Rescue efforts were hampered for around five hours after the incident, over concerns that more panels of concrete ceiling could fall.
NHK TV reported a stream of people who have abandoned their vehicles, and were escaping from the tunnel at the other exit. One man told NHK TV that he was driving about 50 meters from the collapsed area. He said concrete on the ceiling fell suddenly and that he later saw fire coming from a smashed car. He then left his car on the scene, and walked for about one hour to the exit.
NHK reporter Yoshio Goto, was caught in the accident, and reportedly hit the accelerator and managed to drive out.
"But it was a bit too late and pieces of ceiling fell on my car. I kept pressing the pedal and managed to get out," he said. "Then when I looked around, I saw half of the car ceiling was crushed."
Officials quoted one woman as saying she does not know the whereabouts of 5 people she was traveling with in a car. Another report says at least 2 other people are unaccounted for. Police are trying to confirm a report that there are at least 20 vehicles still trapped in the tunnel.
Update:According to Japanese emergency officials, several bodies have been found in a wagon, which was trapped under fallen debris and caught fire, and a body of a man was found in a truck in the tunnel.
It is confirmed that a large number of concrete panels, around 8 cms thick, fell from the ceiling, around 2 kms from an exit of the Sasago Tunnel.
At the time of the accident, there were around 30 vehicles in the tunnel and at least 3 were trapped under fallen panels.
Officials state that 2 injured women have been taken to hospital, one of them was with the 5 persons found dead in the wagon.
Update 2:It has been confirmed by police that 9 bodies have been recovered from 3 vehicles in the tunnel.
In a vehicle believed to have been carrying 6 people, local police and firefighters found 5 bodies - 3 men and 2 women, all in their 20's from Tokyo. A 28-year-old woman employed by a bank in Kanagawa Prefecture survived.