At least nine people died on Sunday when the Sasago tunnel collapsed about 50 miles west of Tokyo.
Five bodies were extracted from a charred station wagon and another three bodies were removed from a second burned-out vehicle, a crushed truck. Some of the bodies were so badly burned it will take days identify them, authorities said.
As commuters made their way through the 3-mile-long tunnel at around 8 p.m., 270 concrete slabs — each weighing more than a ton — came crashing down. Crews worked through the night as snow fell to clear debris and reach survivors.
The disaster incited widespread distress over the strength of other tunnels in the nation. Emergency safety checks were under way on 49 other underpasses with similar designs.
Authorities said it was possible aging equipment was to blame but did not yet cite a specific cause. The Sasago tunnel had been examined just two months ago, but no concerns of its integrity were raised.
Motohiro Takamisawa, a representative from Central Nippon Expressway, said the metal rods holding the concrete in place could be at fault. "At this moment we're presuming that the top anchor bolts have come loose,” he told reporters.
Japan’s highway system has more than 1,500 tunnels and a quarter of them are more than 30 years old.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura held a press conference Monday, saying, "The prime minister ordered the transport ministry to put the utmost efforts to rescue victims, to quickly investigate the cause of the accident and to establish measures to prevent similar accidents and to provide a counseling service to victims."
The closure of the tunnel is expected to cause massive delays around the nation because the expressway is a main route for commerce. There is no timeframe for reopening the tunnel.
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