42 killed when two packed trains collide in Japan

May 15, 1991|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun

TOKYO -- Two passenger trains crashed head-on in western Japan yesterday, killing at least 42 people and injuring more than 400.

Rescue crews climbed ladders to get to the top of the wreckage, while others worked with ropes and electric saws to free the injured from torn-up seats and twisted metal. Firefighters, police officers and ambulance crews carried blood-smeared passengers on stretchers, on improvised slings and on their backs.

The public gymnasium in Shigaraki was turned into an impromptu morgue where stunned, weeping relatives came to identify the dead. More than 60 of the injured were kept at hospitals overnight.

Survivors told television and radio that the impact turned some of the hundreds of standing passengers into human projectiles, that it filled the cars with flying shards of glass and that it brought screams of panic from many of those who were still conscious when the cars came to a rest.

Initial reports said that police were investigating the possibility of negligence by railroad crews, who were said to have used hand signals because a recently installed automatic signal was out of order.

The trains were scheduled to pass each other at a siding but instead met about a mile and a half from the siding, on the single-track main line, at a curving, wooded section along the base of a mountain, news reports said.

Surviving passengers from both trains said they felt no sensation of braking, and the two trains apparently were going at full normal speed. Railway officials were quoted as saying that top speed on the line is 50 mph.

"We got up early this morning and left Kyoto to go to a pottery exhibition," a woman who appeared to be in her 50s told a television interviewer as she was being carried on a cot. "I never felt any feeling like any brakes being put on, just a sudden huge crash. I can't move my arm; I can't even feel my arm. I never thought going to a pottery festival would end like this."

It was Japan's worst train crash since 1963, when 161 passengers died when two trains collided in Yokohama. In 1972, 30 people were killed and 714 injured when a train passing through a tunnel caught fire.

By early today the number of dead was up to 42, and rescue crews said they felt they probably had found all the victims.

One of the trains, carrying an estimated 500 people, was TC three-car special going from Kyoto to Shigaraki, a famous Japanese pottery center southwest of Tokyo, where most of the passengers planned to attend a world ceramic arts festival.

That would be about 2 1/2 times the train's normal capacity, but packing trains is not illegal in Japan and is so common that big-city commuter lines assign workers to push the last few passengers through the doors at rush hour. Some long-distance lines do the same for popular holidays.

The packed Shigaraki-bound train collided head-on about 10:35 a.m. with a four-car local carrying about 100 passengers.

The signal that was said to have been out of service, and the 100-yard-long siding where the trains were scheduled to pass, had been installed especially to handle traffic for the festival.

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