Japanese School in Mourning
Nov. 16, 2000
TOKYO (AP) _ The halls of Inawashiro Junior High School are somber. Some students cry in corridors. Others have curled up on mattresses or locked themselves in rooms.
The deaths of five classmates _ star skiers with Olympic dreams _ in an Austrian cable car inferno have plunged the school in northeastern Japan into mourning.
``We are trying to get things back to normal as soon as possible,'' principal Norio Iwahashi said Thursday. ``The students are in shock.''
The 155 people killed in the Alpine tunnel are presumed to include coach Okihiko Deguchi; his 13-year-old daughter, Nao; and Masanobu Onodera, Tomohisa Saze, Tomoko Wakui, Ayaka Katono _ all 14.
Japanese television news closely followed the progress of rescue efforts after the ski resort blaze Saturday. Relatives of the Japanese victims _ 10 Japanese were believed to be on the cable car _ lighted candles at a requiem mass in Austria.
An editorial in the mass-circulation Asahi Shimbun could merely muster a litany of questions:
``What about the emergency systems? Were there procedures for guiding passengers in an emergency and escape exits from the tunnel? Weren't there working fire extinguishers?''
Austrian investigators have focused on whether a technical malfunction caused the worst disaster ever suffered by that country's multimillion dollar skiing industry. The cable car burst into flames while taking skiers to the slopes on Kitzsteinhorn mountain in Kaprun, Austria.
Japanese ski resorts usually don't get much snow until December, so tours to Europe for elite student skiers have been gaining in popularity.
An employee of tour organizer Ogasaka Ski described the teen-agers' excitement before their departure.
``There were kids who were going abroad for the first time,'' said Mitsuhiko Otsuka. ``They left Japan with their hearts filled with hope about the chance to train and learn from Deguchi and just ski.''
The young Japanese victims were training for Japan's national skiing competition. Two college students, Saori Mitsumoto and Ryoko Narahara, both 22, had been struggling just to qualify for the tournament. But the junior high school students _ from a school with one of Japan's most successful skiing programs _ had bigger ambitions.
``They all dreamed about competing in the Olympics,'' Otsuka said.
Japan has a long skiing tradition. But it is only recently that Japanese skiers _ benefiting from more professional training programs _ have been picking up Olympic medals.
The students were thrilled by the chance to be taught by Deguchi, a successful pro who won the All Japan Collegiate Championship when he was a student.
Iwahashi and Otsuka said he was a kind man _ who was also hard as nails when it came to teaching skiing.
``He was a great leader,'' said Iwahashi. ``He was so dedicated to teaching the kids.''
Despite the Kaprun tragedy, Otsuka said his company has no intention to stop organizing overseas tours for promising young Japanese skiers.
``This sort of thing is unprecedented,'' he said. ``Rather than rethink the program, we want to continue creating opportunities for kids who want to improve their skills and challenge the world.''