Updated Monday, December 3, 2012 at 10:03 AM
TOKYO — At least nine people are confirmed dead after several vehicles were crushed in the collapse of a highway tunnel located between Tokyo and Mt. Fuji, according to the Yamanashi prefectural police.
Five bodies were recovered from a van when parts of a concrete ceiling tumbled and a fire filled the tunnel with thick, black smoke. The bodies of three people in a passenger vehicle and the driver of a freezer truck were also recovered, said Yoshihiro Seto, a spokesman for the Yamanashi police.
The 3-mile long Sasago Tunnel is along the Chuo expressway about 53 miles west of Tokyo.
The expressway links Tokyo to Nagoya, Japan's fourth-largest city.
News reports said investigators believed that supports in the ceiling of the 35-year-old tunnel might have grown brittle, allowing hundreds of the slabs along a 150- to 200-foot section of eight-inch-thick concrete, weighing about 180 tons, to fall.
Executives for Central Japan Expressway said a check of the tunnel's roof in September and October found nothing amiss.
The location of the collapse, about a mile inside the tunnel, was complicating rescue efforts, reports said. The tunnel opened in 1977. Long tunnels — usually lined with smooth, white concrete — are common on highways in the mountainous island nation.
The accident raised questions about whether other tunnels and highway infrastructure built during the construction boom of the 1960s and '70s are growing too old and need to be strengthened or replaced.
Japan's transport ministry is expected to order inspections of tunnels across the country with a similar design, said Takashi Ito, who works in the planning department at the ministry.
Takekazu Kaneko, chief executive officer of the company, made a public apology Sunday, NHK reported.
Compiled from The New York Times, Bloomberg News and The