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Rescuers Gear Up for Next Attempt to Dislodge Boulder

February 11, 1996

FURUBIRA, Japan (AP) _ Rescuers blasted the side of a mountain with dynamite Sunday in an attempt to reach some 20 people trapped in a collapsed highway tunnel, but the explosion failed to dislodge the boulder, about the size of a 20-story office building.

Hopes were fading late Sunday, more than 36 hours after the accident, that anyone would be found alive. Residents of this small, northern Japanese fishing village could only wait as rescuers prepared for a second blast attempt.

The giant slab of rock peeled off the mountain and crashed through the tunnel roof early Saturday, apparently crushing a bus carrying 19 people, including teen-agers on their way to nearby Sapporo for an annual snow festival.

The attempt to topple the boulder into the sea with a blast of 550 pounds of dynamite only crumbled the lower portion of the rock into dust, leaving the rest of the rock intact and upright.

Rescuers were planning another blast Monday morning that they hope would allow them to dig through the rubble.

Military specialists had gotten far enough into the tunnel to spot the bus’s mangled bumper and a battered license plate piled over with rock. They found the driver’s cap and gloves, but did not hear any voices or gotten any other indications anyone was alive.

Officials believe a car carrying one person also was trapped in the collapse.

The boulder is about 70 yards tall and 40 yards wide, and officials believe it weighs about 50,000 tons. The rock appeared to be directly on top of the bus.

More than half of those aboard the bus were from this village, about 550 miles north of Tokyo on the northern island of Hokkaido. With a population of less than 5,000, most most residents here know one another.

Takako Watanabe gradually has lost hope there will be any survivors. Her lifelong friend, Nobuko Hattori was on the bus accompanying her grandmother to the next town for a visit to the doctor.

``The past few days I’ve cried and cried while watching this unfold, until I just don’t have any more tears,″ Watanabe said.

Anguished family members kept a vigil as snow swirled around the opening of the tunnel and the temperature dropped to a bone-chilling 23 degrees Fahrenheit.

``They haven’t told us anything,″ said Tetsuo Honma, whose son, 17, was among the teens in the bus. Honma, who was waiting for news near the mouth of the tunnel, spent the night at the spot.

Fearing that any survivors would have frozen to death in the hours since the collapse, several family members grew angry at the pace of rescue efforts and yelled at police to hurry up.

Rescuers had milled around the site for almost 11 hours after the accident while officials discussed how to get through the rubble without setting off another collapse.

The failure of the initial blast to dislodge the rock was further discouragement for some 60 people who gathered at a one-room town hall about 8 miles from the site to monitor rescue operations on live television.

``It sure doesn’t look good from here,″ 51-year old farmer Yasuhiro Iwamoto said. ``It looks like they were crushed all over again.″

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