Train crash: Rescuers fight against time

Rescuers on Tuesday pulled three survivors and more bodies from the wreckage of a Japanese train as the death toll rose to 76, with a new derailment raising fresh safety concerns following recent rail privatisation.

With hundreds of residents watching in silent prayer, rescue teams squeezed into flattened carriages in a last effort to find survivors. Cranes removed train debris wrapped around an apartment building.

Three people were confirmed dead late on Tuesday, about 36 hours after the speeding commuter train jumped the tracks and smashed into an apartment building during the morning rush hour in the industrial city of Amagasaki near Osaka.

“I thought Japanese trains were safe. Now I have to think again,” said Junko Iwabe, a 35-year-old housewife in this western industrial town, as she bowed in respect before the site of Japan’s worst train accident in 42 years.

The search was continuing for a second night so long as hope remained for survivors, amid reports that 10 to 20 people could still be trapped under the debris, a fire department spokesperson said.

Just one day after the tragedy, which also injured 456 people, a carriage of another passenger train derailed in Ibaraki prefecture north-east of Tokyo, reinforcing fears although there were no casualties.

Police on Tuesday searched the Osaka headquarters of the West Japan Railway (JR West) as part of their probe into the accident, as outraged families asked how such an accident could happen in safety-conscious Japan.

“I am furious at JR West,” Hirokazu Kobata (57) told reporters after seeing the body of his wife, Sachiko (53).

“Please bring her back,” Kobata said at a gymnasium that has been turned into a makeshift morgue for bodies that were often too mutilated for identification.

The bestselling Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper questioned in an editorial whether profit incentives at JR West, which was fully privatised last year, led to lax safety standards.

Train driver Ryujiro Takami (23) had 11 months’ experience on the job and had previously received warnings, including one when passengers complained he looked inattentive at the job, according to JR West officials.

Takami is believed still to be under the debris and it is unclear if he is dead or alive, a JR West spokesperson said.
The Mainichi Shimbun newspaper said he was negotiating a curve at 100kph, far above the speed limit of 70kph.

“Is the company not stupid to put such a driver on duty?” asked Kobata. “I wanted to let her [my wife] enjoy a second life together with me to make up for all the trouble I gave her when we were still young.”

The Japanese government has been pressing ahead with privatisation, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on Tuesday finalising details of his key project: breaking up the massive post office.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda, the government spokesperson, said Japan still expects accountability from the railway as a “public entity”, despite privatisation.

Four of the train’s seven carriages were thrown from the tracks at a curve in this town 400km west of Tokyo during the rush hour as workers and children began their Monday morning.

One carriage was completely bent across an apartment building, with rubble piling up to the third floor.

A 19-year-old university student was rescued about 22 hours after the accident.

The student, wrapped with a blanket and rushed to hospital on a yellow stretcher, was in a serious condition but was able to identify himself as Hiroki Hayashi, the fire department spokesperson said.

Two others were also rescued alive earlier in the day. An 18-year-old man was in a serious condition, while a 46-year-old woman had injuries to her legs. Both are receiving treatment in hospital.

It was Japan’s worst accident since November 1963, when 161 people died in Yokohama when a freight train collided with a truck and was then hit by two passenger trains.—Sapa-AFP

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