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Rescuers Reportedly Find First Body in Tunnel Cave-in

February 15, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ Rescue workers reportedly unearthed their first body Thursday as they dug toward 20 people trapped in a tunnel that collapsed when a boulder the size of a 20-story building slammed into it.

Distraught relatives, many of whom have kept vigil near the tunnel entrance since the collapse Saturday, said they feared anyone who survived the cave-in will already have frozen to death.

Police on the northern island of Hokkaido could not immediately confirm the discovery of the body, which the evening Mainichi newspaper said was that of a man, found inside the bus near the driver’s seat. The report said the entire body had not yet been unearthed but that a protruding arm had no pulse.

In addition to the bus, which had 19 people aboard, a car with a single occupant was also trapped when a huge slab of rock sheared off a mountainside and smashed into the tunnel.

It took four dynamite blasts over four days to reduce the rock to rubble that could be cleared away. Rescue workers promised to keep up efforts to reach the bus and car trapped inside.

``We think that we can speed up the pace of the operations from now on,″ said Yoshiaki Abe, director of the road maintenance division at the Hokkaido Development Bureau, which is leading the rescue effort.

Rescuers had feared that prematurely entering the tunnel to remove debris might trigger another landslide.

But even with the boulder gone, officials said it could take several days to dig out the debris at the site outside a remote cliffside village about 550 miles north of Tokyo.

The rescue has dominated national news coverage. Media trucks have descended on the accident scene and on the nearby fishing village of Furubira, home to many of the 19 passengers on the bus.

Early in the effort, soldiers snaked a tiny camera through the rubble to look at the bus, but they have conducted no such searches for signs of life since.

It wasn’t clear what caused the giant rock slab to fall, but experts said water seeping into cracks in the mountainside, then freezing, may have caused them to expand over the years, eventually loosening the rock.

At least one similar accident has occurred in the area near the tunnel cave-in. Keitaro Yamaguchi, a spokesman of the Hokkaido Development Bureau, said a rock twice as big as the one that crushed the tunnel Saturday fell from a nearby mountain in July 1994. It did not affect local roads.

Iwao Nakajima, a professor of geology at Hokkaido University, said in a telephone interview that the site has large amounts of volcanic rock that easily absorb water and are easily eroded.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto ordered an inspection of all tunnels located near cliffs or other potentially unstable formations.

Officials in Hokkaido said they conduct daily tunnel patrols, and had checked the tunnel the day before the accident and noted nothing unusual.

``We took a brief look at the ceiling and entrance of the tunnel, but it can’t really be called an inspection,″ said Yasuhiro Kasai, a construction official with the Hokkaido Development Bureau.

The last full-scale inspection of the tunnel was in September 1991, said Naotoshi Baba, director of the road disaster prevention division at the Ministry of Construction. It found nothing wrong.

Update hourly