In a desperate bid to reach about 20 people trapped in a collapsed highway tunnel, rescue crews in rugged northern Japan prepared Sunday to blast their way in.
Twenty-four hours after part of a mountainside thundered down and buried the seaside tunnel, hopes were fading that anyone would be found alive. A passenger bus and at least one car were caught in the collapse, 550 miles north of Tokyo.
Fear of triggering a new rockslide forced rescuers before dawn Sunday to abandon their digging through either end of the 3,560-foot-long Toyohama tunnel, which runs beneath a snowy mountain on the west coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island.
Stymied, the rescue crews decided Sunday morning to begin blasting through the top of the tunnel to try to reach the victims, including a group of teenagers en route to a popular annual snow festival in nearby Sapporo.
Authorities told the families of those trapped that the blasting would not affect conditions inside the tunnel itself. But with freezing temperatures and no signs of life from inside, rescue prospects grew grimmer with each passing hour.
Officials said they had heard no voices or received any other indications that anyone trapped inside was alive. Military specialists snaked tiny video cameras attached to optical fibers through the rubble; they saw the bus, with its battered license plate, but no people.
Workers found only the driver’s cap and gloves.
In the collapse, a single massive oblong boulder - 230-feet long and up to 100-feet thick - slid off the mountain early Saturday and crashed into the tunnel. The sheer size of the rock made it far harder to clear away than an equal amount of loose debris.
“They just couldn’t get through the rock without creating the danger of another avalanche,” said Hokkaido state police official Masahisa Tamura. “There may be a way to knock the slab over or blast it apart, which might make digging safer - but that’s far from certain.”
As snow swirled around the opening of the tunnel and the temperature dropped to a bone-chilling 23 degrees, anguished family members gathered at the site, some keeping a vigil through the night.
Frightened that the cold would kill any survivors, a few relatives yelled at police to speed up the rescue work.
“Some who might not have been crushed could be in there freezing to death,” said Tama Iwamoto, 74, a relative of a 51-year-old man on the bus passenger list.
Yoshinori Tashimo, a spokesman for Hokkaido Chuo Bus Co., which operates the bus, said there were probably 22 people including the driver aboard. The exact number was not clear because it was not known if everyone with reservations boarded the bus.
Tamura said there was at least one passenger car, maybe more, trapped with the bus, although only the bus had been seen early Sunday.
Map of area