Death toll from Japanese train disaster reaches 71

Rescuers were working through the night on Monday in a desperate search for survivors after at least 71 people were killed when a packed morning commuter train smashed into an apartment block in western Japan in the country’s worst rail crash for more than 40 years.

Two women were pulled alive from the crumpled carriages early on Tuesday morning and 10 others were thought to be still trapped in the mangled mass of metal around the building’s car park.

Police said the death toll had risen to 71. More than 130 of the 440 injured in the crash were in a serious condition, media reports said.

The seven-carriage express was carrying 580 people when it derailed, ploughed into a parked car and then into an apartment building just six metres from the track.

The front two carriages were turned into shells of twisted metal as they slammed into the building’s ground-floor car park at high speed.

Many of the victims were thought to have been travelling in two women-only carriages.

Officials were unable to confirm whether the dead and injured included bystanders or residents of the apartment block.

The accident happened at about 9.20am local time near Amagasaki, a town of factories and apartment blocks that lies between the two big cities of Osaka and Kobe, about 400km west of Tokyo.

The accident site was sealed off but television footage taken from the air showed hundreds of rescue workers trying to reach the dead and injured with ropes and heavy cutting equipment.

Survivors said the train began to shudder seconds before impact.

“There was a violent shaking, and the next moment I was thrown to the floor ... and I landed on a pile of people,” Tatsuyuki Akashi told NHK television.

“I didn’t know what had happened.
Many people were bleeding.”

A woman in her 20s said one side of the carriage she had been in was ripped away on impact. “People were bleeding and trying to crawl out,” she said. “I heard others screaming ‘It hurts, it hurts’.”

Photographs taken by a survivor showed passengers piled on top of each other on the floor while others tried desperately to find an escape route.

Although the cause of the crash is still under investigation, safety experts said the train could have derailed of its own accord had it been travelling at a minimum of 136km, well above the 72km speed limit for that section of track. It is still not clear how fast the train was travelling at the time.

Early reports that the train had struck a car parked on the tracks were later discounted by accident investigators, who said the car, parked nearby, was probably hit after the derailment.

Ryujiro Takami, the 23-year-old driver, survived the crash and was being treated in hospital.

Officials confirmed that Takami, who qualified as a driver only 11 months ago, had been issued with a warning last year after overrunning a station by 100m.

Survivors of Monday’s crash said the train had been late leaving the previous stop, adding to suspicions that the driver had been speeding to make up for lost time. “There are many theories but we don’t know for sure what caused the accident,” said a government spokesperson, Hiroyuki Hosoda.

The railway firm apologised, but refused to speculate on the cause of the accident. “Our most important task now is to rescue the passengers and we are doing our best,” Takeshi Kakiuchi, president of West Japan Railway, said at a press conference.

Police were expected to search the offices of West Japan Railway on Tuesday on suspicion of professional negligence, the Kyodo news agency reported.

The crash was Japan’s worst since 1963, when 160 people died in a multiple collision in Yokohama. The last major accident to hit the country’s public transport system was in March 2000, when five people were killed and 33 injured in a collision between two subway trains in Tokyo.

The operators of Japan’s huge network of railway lines, many of which run through densely populated urban areas, pride themselves on their record for safety and punctuality.

The country’s bullet train suffered its first derailment after an earthquake last October, but the service has not been involved in a fatal accident since its introduction in 1964. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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