(NEW YORK) — At least three people have been confirmed dead and four others were missing, after a highway tunnel in central Japan partially collapsed Sunday morning, sparking a fire. Yamanashi police say three cars were trapped inside the Sasago Tunnel, 50 miles west of the capital city.
Charred remains of the victims were pulled from one of the vans. At least two people were taken to the hospital.
Video from surveillance cameras inside the tunnel showed concrete slabs caving in, with cars crushed underneath. Aerial images of the scene showed black smoke spewing from the tunnel.
Witnesses report a frantic scene following the accident. More than 20 cars including a tour bus were passing through at the time, but many passengers managed to escape the flames, according to broadcaster NHK.
“The ceiling just caved in, so I couldn’t tell if it was dust rising or smoke,” one witness told NHK. “I wasn’t able to see anything in front of me.”
The collapse occurred about 2 miles from the exit of the roughly 3 mile long tunnel, bound for Tokyo, according to Central Nippon Expressway or NEXCO, which operates the tunnel. Concrete ceiling panels came crashing down on cars passing through, triggering a fire.
Firefighters and rescue crews were dispatched to the scene, but heavy smoke hampered efforts early in the day.
Sunday afternoon, they temporarily suspended the search, fearful of another collapse, but emergency crews resumed efforts in the evening, in search of those still unaccounted for.
The Sasago tunnel is located on the Chuo Expressway, a major thoroughfare that runs from Tokyo to the city of Nagoya. It was built in 1977 and had undergone stringent checkups several times this year, according to NEXCO officials.
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio
Lorenzo Ferrigno, CNN
Andreas Preuss, CNN
Susan Scutti, CNN
Lauren del Valle, CNN