Japanese Train Crash Kills 56, Injures Hundreds

Japanese Train Derailment
At least 53 are dead and more than 400 were injured Monday after Japan's deadliest train accident in more than 40 years.
By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 25, 2005; 2:55 PM

TOKYO, April 25 -- A packed commuter train in western Japan derailed and smashed into an apartment building on Monday just after the morning rush hour, killing at least 56 people and injuring hundreds in the nation's worst train disaster in four decades.

Rescue workers struggled into the night to free at least four survivors who were still trapped in the first car of the train, which had wedged itself deep inside the apartment building.

Ambulances, paramedics and police had swarmed over the crash site near the city of Amagasaki, about 250 miles west of Tokyo. The train operator, West Japan Railway Co., said at least 343 people had been taken to hospitals.

The actual number of dead and injured remained uncertain as night fell.

Five of the train's seven cars derailed around 9:18 a.m. local time (8:18 p.m. EDT) with two of them crashing into the apartment building. The train had 580 passengers on board and at the time of the accident may have been traveling faster than the 43 mph speed limit in the zone, officials said.

The front façade of the apartment building partially collapsed as the train hit the building. The train car's twisted hulk remained stuck inside the structure as rescue workers sifted through the rubble for survivors.

Witnesses said that several of the injured appeared to be high school students and that a shortage of stretchers was causing rescuers to strip out train seats to carry out the injured.

Investigators were delving into the cause of the crash, which remained unclear. They were looking into whether excessive speed or the actions of the inexperienced driver -- a 23-year-old who had been on the job for 11 months -- may have contributed to the disaster. The driver had overshot the stop lines at the previous station before the accident, causing a slight delay. Some eye-witnesses told local TV stations that the train was moving unusually fast, perhaps to make up lost time.

Amagasaki, Japan
Earlier reports from the scene indicated the train could have hit a car at a railway crossing before derailing. But railway officials told reporters it was still unknown whether the train had hit the car before or after derailing.

"There are many theories, but we don't know for sure what caused the accident," Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroyuki Hosoda said. "The prime minister instructed us to respond with urgency."

The railroad company also told the Kyodo News Service that grinding marks were found on the tracks, sometimes an indication of a train running over an object such as a stone. But there was not yet information sufficient to link the marks with the crash, the officials told Kyodo.

Masato Koyama, a television announcer for Japan's NHK network who happened to be onboard the derailed train, told reporters that "about 9:18, the train put on the breaks and suddenly my body was flung forward along with other passengers. When I rose, someone was bleeding from head, another bleeding from the arm, and other people were not moving."

The train's driver remained in serious condition at a local hospital.

"Our most important task now is to rescue the passengers from the accident, and we are doing our best," Takeshi Kakiuchi, president of the West Japan Railway Co., told reporters.

Japan maintains one of the world's largest, busiest and most sophisticated networks of trains in the world, yet derailing and serious accidents are extremely rare. Monday's accident marked the nation's worst rail disaster at least 42 years. A three-train crash in November 1963 killed 161 people near Tokyo.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company