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A Village Waits And Weeps While Crews Struggle to Reach Buried Bus

February 12, 1996

FURUBIRA, Japan (AP) _ Innkeeper Takako Watanabe usually hates shoveling the heavy snow that piles up in the winter in these rugged northern mountains. Now, though, it’s a solace.

``All I can do is try to keep busy,″ she said, scooping the snow stoically while she waited for word on the fate of a lifelong friend who was among 20 people trapped in a crushed highway tunnel just outside this small, close-knit village.

On Monday, work crews tried for a second day to dislodge a boulder the size of a 20-story building that broke away from a mountainside and crashed through the tunnel’s roof, burying a bus and a passenger car.

And in a repeat of Sunday’s effort, the blast barely budged the huge slab of rock.

As the days and hours have passed, the village’s hopes have gradually turned to grief. More than half of the 19 people aboard the submerged bus were from Furubira, perched on the rocky seacoast beneath mountain cliffs 550 miles north of Tokyo.

With a population of less than 5,000, most of those who live here have at least one friend or neighbor among those trapped.

In their wooden houses, sipping endless cups of green tea, people gathered around televisions, talking quietly and watching scenes of the rescue effort. When live reports came on, everyone fell silent.

Watanabe, lean and sinewy with a face bronzed by wind and sun, couldn’t stop thinking of her friend Noboku Hattori, whom she has known for all her 43 years. Hattori was on the bus accompanying her grandmother to the next town for a doctor’s visit.

Watanabe said today she had lost all faith that Hattori was still alive.

``I’ve exhausted myself trying to decide if it’s fate or something else that made things turn out this way for Nobu-chan,″ she said, using an affectionate diminutive.

At the tiny town hall, official Hiroshi Tsuda worked at his desk. A cluster of elderly men sat nearby, watching television.

``What can we do except watch it unfold, and try to comfort each other?″ he said.

Conversing with an outsider, Tsuda used the past tense to refer to those trapped, as if they were dead, but then switched back to the present when talking with other townspeople.

Already, amid the grief, there was anger. Japanese rescue-and-relief officials have a reputation for slow and ineffective responses to emergencies, and for being secretive about what they are doing and why.

``We know that it’s not easy to move a mountain, but my friends with family members in there feel like they are not being told what is really going on,″ said dry-goods grocer Hiroyuki Kasahara, calling down from the eaves of his store where he was clearing snow.

``After all this, people around here are going to have even less trust in the government,″ he said.

The prime minister sent an envoy, Cabinet member Saburo Okabe, to meet with the victims’ families and pass along his sympathy. News reports said the relatives complained to Okabe about being kept out of the loop.

Back at the Watanabe inn, 17-year-old Yuya Watanabe spoke quietly of those he knew on the bus. One of them was his best friend from high school, 17-year-old Koichi Fujii.

``We played a game of shogi (Japanese chess) just a few days ago,″ he said softly. ``When I talked to him the day before the accident, I never thought it would be for the last time.″

He knows his friend is almost certainly dead, but can’t quite believe it. Like everyone in town, he can only wait.

``Until I see them bring his body out,″ he said, ``I won’t be able to stop hoping.″

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