UP to 10 people are feared dead after a major road tunnel collapsed on to a busy Japanese motorway, sending dozens of concrete panels crashing down on motorists.
The accident happened in the Sasago motorway tunnel, one of the longest in the country, which passes through a mountain about 50 miles west of Tokyo.
The road links the Japanese capital to the city of Nagoya.
Large sections of the tunnel's concrete roof fell on passing cars, burying some vehicles and trapping others.
Efforts to rescue survivors were seriously hindered after one of the vehicles caught fire, igniting a blaze that was fed by petrol from ruptured fuel tanks.
Reports suggested that at least three bodies were found inside the tunnel, with as many as another seven people missing. One survivor said she had managed to escape from a car carrying six people that was crushed.
"I could hear voices of people calling for help, but the fire was just too strong," said the woman. Police told local media that they did not know what caused the eight-inch lining of the 2.5-mile tunnel to give way at around 8am yesterday, although a strong earthquake had rattled central Japan on November 24. Another theory was that the disaster may have been caused by a landslide inside the mountain.
Wider concerns have been expressed recently over falling standards at a number of Japanese companies that are feeling the impact of the economic downturn.
It was not clear last night whether a maintenance issue may be to blame, but Central Nippon Expressway, the operator of the route, held a press conference and said routine safety checks as recently as September had detected no faults.
As the rescue teams continued their work, a number of survivors told of their escapes.
"As I was driving in the tunnel, pieces of concrete suddenly started falling from the ceiling," one man told national broadcaster NHK.
"I saw a car that had been crushed and had caught fire," he said. "I was frightened. I got out of my car and walked for about one hour to get out of the tunnel."
Another driver caught in the disaster was Yoshio Goto, a reporter for NHK.
"I was a bit too late and pieces of the roof fell on my car," he said.
"I kept pressing the pedal and managed to get out. Then, when I looked around, I saw that half of the top of my car had been crushed." (© Daily Telegraph, London)