TOKYO — Work crews in northern Japan finally succeeded today in blasting to rubble a giant rock that had crushed a highway tunnel. But it may still take days of digging to reach a trapped bus and car and their occupants.
The rescue drama has captured Japan's attention since Saturday, when a slab of mountain the size of a 20-story building peeled free and crushed the seaside tunnel, trapping a bus with 19 people aboard and a car with one person inside.
Today's blast, the fourth attempt to topple or blow up the rock, reduced the boulder to a huge pile of loose debris and sent two big chunks rolling into the ocean at the Toyohama tunnel, about 30 miles northwest of Sapporo, capital of the northern island of Hokkaido.
Soon afterward, power shovels began clearing a way to the smashed roof. Officials said one more blast might still be necessary if they encountered big chunks.
Meanwhile, questions were growing over safety standards for such tunnels. Japan's Kyodo News Service reported today that 18 months ago, not far from the accident site, another rock twice as big as the one destroyed today plunged down from a mountainside.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto ordered checks nationwide of tunnels located near cliffs or other potentially unstable formations.