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Body Found in Collapsed Tunnel in Northern Japan

February 17, 1996

TOKYO (AP) _ For a week, rescuers have dynamited and dug through the rubble of a collapsed tunnel in northern Japan. On Friday the really tough work began: the unearthing of the 20 victims.

Workers on the snowy, windswept northern island of Hokkaido pulled out the first body late in the day. The man had been crushed to death over the steering wheel of his car as he drove to work.

He was killed when a skyscraper-sized rock slid off a mountainside and crashed through the tunnel roof last Saturday, trapping the car and a bus carrying 19 people.

Rescuers have been working since then to remove the massive rock and dig out the victims from the disaster site near a remote seaside village 550 miles north of Tokyo.

The body of 20-year-old store clerk Tatsushi Umemoto was the first to be uncovered. Workers spotted an arm protruding from the buried bus earlier this week, but no progress had been made in digging the body out.

The crash was so powerful that the car was driven into the ground, forcing rescuers to struggle two hours to reach it and the body, police said. A doctor examining Umemoto’s corpse concluded he had been crushed to death.

Inside the freezing tunnel, troops painstakingly removed debris with blow torches and hand shovels from the area immediately around the commuter bus. Its markings _ ``Central Bus″ _ could be clearly seen.

Rescuers were using special shears to cut steel reinforcement beams in the concrete. An exhaust duct was installed to draw out dust and fumes from power machinery.

About 90 percent of the debris had been carted away as of Saturday morning, police said. Extracting the bus victims was expected to take until midday Saturday. Their condition was unknown, though there have been no signs of life under the rubble. Temperatures have been below freezing since the accident, raising fears that any survivors could die of hypothermia.

The rescue effort has been torturous, and family members keeping vigil by the tunnel _ many suffering from exhaustion _ were given medical checkups Friday, Red Cross spokesman Yoshitaka Kumagai said.

The boulder, the size of a 20-story building, was finally was broken down Wednesday after four dynamite blasts. Since then, workers have been digging around the clock.

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