Japan orders tunnel inspections after death toll rises to nine

TOKYO Mon Dec 3, 2012 4:34am EST

1 of 4. Broken concrete ceiling panels are seen after collapsing inside Sasago Tunnel on the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi Prefecture, in this handout still image taken from video by Yamanashi Prefectural Police on December 2, 2012, and released by Kyodo December 3, 2012. Police confirmed nine bodies in three vehicles, including the truck trapped inside the 4.7 km (2.8 mile) tunnel on the Chuo Expressway, Kyodo news reported. Mandatory Credit.

Credit: Reuters/Kyodo

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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan ordered emergency inspections of highway tunnels across the country after one collapsed on Sunday killing nine people.

Two people were also injured when a 110 meter (360 feet) long section of the tunnel's concrete ceiling panels collapsed onto cars on Sunday morning along the Chuo Expressway in Yamanashi prefecture, about 80 km (50 miles) west of Tokyo.

"The Prime Minister ordered the transport ministry to put the utmost efforts into rescuing 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 to take care of them," Chief Cabinet Secretary Osamu Fujimura told a news conference on Monday.

The Land Ministry ordered highway companies with similar concrete panels in tunnels to make emergency inspections.

An official from the highway operator, Central Nippon Expressway (Nexco), said the metal rods used to secure the concrete panels to the walls in the 4.7 km tunnel may have become loose.

"At this moment we're presuming that the top anchor bolts had come loose," Nexco's Safety Service Center Chief Motohiro Takamisawa told local media.

The ceiling panels had not been repaired or reinforced since they were built in 1977 but passed safety checks in September, public broadcaster NHK reported.

In 1996 a tunnel in Hokkaido, northern Japan, collapsed and falling rocks crushed cars and a bus, killing 20 people.

(Reporting by TV team, writing by Kaori Kaneko, Editing by Jonathan Thatcher)

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