Evacuee: Chaos in Japan's highway tunnel

YAMANASHI, Japan - A 64-year-old man was on a tour bus inside the Chuo Expressway's Sasago Tunnel in Yamanashi Prefecture when concrete ceiling panels fell on Sunday, leaving nine dead, told The Yomiuri Shimbun about the chaos after the accident.

Hisao Watanabe, a farmer from Koshu in the prefecture, was on his way to the Dogashima hot spring resort in Nishi-Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture, with 17 friends from his primary school. The bus entered the expressway at the Katsunuma Interchange at about 8 a.m. and was running smoothly through Sasago Tunnel.

However, at 8:10 a.m., when the bus was about three kilometers into the tunnel, a car in front of them stopped and turned on its hazard lights. After waiting a few minutes inside the bus, Watanabe saw a burning car about 200 meters ahead.

At first, Watanabe thought a car fire had broken out. He and his friends got off the bus and started walking back toward the Kofu entrance of the tunnel.

It was crowded with people moving in the same direction.

When he heard someone say the ceiling appeared to have collapsed, he thought they should evacuate immediately.

However, the people walking on the road were in danger of being hit by cars turning around or backing up, and someone suggested walking on the sidewalk.

There is a walkway about 1.2 meters above the road with handrails for safety inspectors along the side of the tunnel.

Watanabe climbed to the walkway and walked for about 50 minutes to get out of the tunnel, along with parents carrying their children.

Soon after Watanabe exited the tunnel, a massive amount of smoke came out of the tunnel. "If the tunnel was filled with smoke earlier, my life could have been in danger," he said.

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