NEW: 5 of the bodies are found in a burned station wagon, police say
NEW: An inspection of the tunnel occurred a few months ago, a company official says
NEW: The partial cave-in was on the Chuo Expressway 50 miles west of Tokyo
It's not clear what caused the collapse, or when the tunnel might reopen
Nine bodies – eight of them burned – have been pulled from vehicles crushed in a tunnel collapse about 80 kilometers (50 miles) west of Tokyo, highway police said Monday.
Five of the bodies were recovered in one charred station wagon, and three others were in another burned vehicle, according to a police spokesperson. The other fatality was in a truck.
The Sasago tunnel on the Chuo Expressway remained closed Monday morning, one day after the cave-in occurred on the highway’s Tokyo-bound lanes, police from the nearby city of Otsuki said.
Officials from the East Yamanashi Fire Department said the section of concrete that fell was about 50 to 60 meters long and about 20 centimeters (8 inches) thick.
Soon after the collapse, Japanese public broadcaster NHK aired images showing smoke rising, a blue car with its side smashed in, and emergency vehicles on the scene.
Crews worked through the night as snow fell outside, trying to get to victims. All the while they were wary that the tunnel might collapse further.
The privately held Central Nippon Expressway Company operates the 4.7-kilometer-long Sasago tunnel, among others, as well as expressways and toll roads around Japan.
Some of the bolts on the on the fallen concrete slabs had dropped off, a company executive, Ryoichi Yoshizawa, said at a news conference Monday in Nagoya.
The Chuo Expressway is a particularly busy stretch of highway that runs between Tokyo and, among other places, Mount Fuji.
While it is a distance from the Japanese capital, the partial tunnel collapse and its subsequent closure are expected to cause major traffic disruptions, especially for those who rely on the expressway for business.
Authorities have not given any indication of when they expect the tunnel to reopen.