Nine confirmed dead in collapsed tunnel near Tokyo

At least nine people have been confirmed dead after a concrete ceiling collapsed deep inside a long highway tunnel in Japan, trapping drivers under the rubble. Rescue efforts were suspended Monday morning to reinforce the roof.

Two cars were crushed and several others caught fire following Sunday mornings cave-in. Thick smoke inside the tunnel forced firefighters to wear breathing gear and has greatly limited their line of sight, making their work much more difficult.

Police recovered the bodies of the nine passengers who travelled in three vehicles in the Sasago Tunnel. It however remaines unclear whether there are more survivors, said Jin Goto, an official at the Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

Rescue efforts have been suspended as the tunnel operator conducted works to reinforce the ceiling of the tunnel, in a bit to avoid more collapses, Goto said.

Some 50 to 60 meters of the ceiling was affected in the initial collapse, an East Yamanashi Fire Department official reported. The affected area is some two kilometers from the Tokyo side of the tunnel.

A stream of people who abandoned their vehicles and were escaping from the tunnel was seen at the other exit, NHK TV reported.

The tunnel on the Chuo Expressway is located between the cities of Otsuki and Koshu in the Yamanashi Prefecture, some 80 kilometers west of Tokyo.

Police vehicles block the road leading to the entrance of the collapsed Sasago tunnel on the Chuo expressway in Koshu city, Yamanashi prefecture, some 80-kilometres west of Tokyo on December 2, 2012 after a 100-metre long section of highway tunnel collapsed. (AFP Photo / Yoshikazu Tsuno)
Police vehicles block the road leading to the entrance of the collapsed Sasago tunnel on the Chuo expressway in Koshu city, Yamanashi prefecture, some 80-kilometres west of Tokyo on December 2, 2012 after a 100-metre long section of highway tunnel collapsed. (AFP Photo / Yoshikazu Tsuno)
Police officers (L) walk on the road leading to the entrance (R) of the collapsed Sasago tunnel on the Chuo expressway in Koshu city, Yamanashi prefecture, some 80-kilometres west of Tokyo on December 2, 2012. (AFP Photo / Yoshikazu Tsuno)
Police officers (L) walk on the road leading to the entrance (R) of the collapsed Sasago tunnel on the Chuo expressway in Koshu city, Yamanashi prefecture, some 80-kilometres west of Tokyo on December 2, 2012. (AFP Photo / Yoshikazu Tsuno)
Fire workers prepare for their rescue operation outside the exit of the collapsed Sasago tunnel on the Chuo expressway in Otsuki city, Yamanashi prefecture, some 80-kilometre west of Tokyo on December 2, 2012. (AFP Photo / Yomiuri Shimbun)
Fire workers prepare for their rescue operation outside the exit of the collapsed Sasago tunnel on the Chuo expressway in Otsuki city, Yamanashi prefecture, some 80-kilometre west of Tokyo on December 2, 2012. (AFP Photo / Yomiuri Shimbun)
Smoke is seen from the Sasago Tunnel on the Chuo Expressway in Koshu, Yamanashi prefecture, in this Kyodo handout photo, December 2, 2012. (Reuters / Kyodo)
Smoke is seen from the Sasago Tunnel on the Chuo Expressway in Koshu, Yamanashi prefecture, in this Kyodo handout photo, December 2, 2012. (Reuters / Kyodo)