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Home » Archives » April 2005 » Japanese Train Crash: "It Was so Terrible, I Had to Walk Away"

Japanese Train Crash: "It Was so Terrible, I Had to Walk Away"

Tuesday, April 26, 2005 Posted: 12:42 AM JST [SLIDE SHOW] [PHOTOS]

Photos of Japan by Kjeld DuitsAt least 73 people died Monday morning, and more than 440 were wounded, when a JR West train carrying 580 passengers derailed and slammed into a building in the West Japanese city of Amagasaki, near Osaka.

"It happened so fast, I didn't even notice that I wasn't sitting anymore but was suddenly laying on the floor," says survivor Masahiro Oshiro. The 40-year-old office worker was lucky because he was sitting in the last of the seven cars of the train.

Oshiro hardly had any time to think. "I slid incredibly fast down the floor to the front of the car." Here he hit the 70 or so other passengers of his car and finally stopped sliding. "Naturally it took only a few seconds, but it felt like they were minutes. Stop, stop I told myself. And I prayed that the train would not fall over. It moved from side to side like it had gone mad."

65-year-old company owner Kikuo Haiyama was just talking on his mobile phone along the railroad when the train came speeding past him. His company is only about a hundred meters or so away from the spot where the train eventually ended up. "That train drove much faster than usual. They are only allowed to go 70 kilometers an hour in the sharp curve here, but it seemed to me it went as fast as 130 kilometers or so."

Right in front of his eyes the train moved with enormous noise off the tracks. "Everything happened incredibly fast. The train first derailed, than entered a parking lot where it drove over a parked car and finally crashed into the building." By the time that Haiyama had walked the short distance from his company to the building white smoke already circled as high as the eighth floor. "I heard women calling for help," says the shocked Haiyama.

What he saw, shook him enormously. The first car had entered the building's garage on the first floor. A second one had wrapped itself around the building. It could no longer be recognized as a train. A third car had crashed into the second one. "It was so terrible that I had to walk away. I couldn't look at it."

"There was an announcement," Oshiro remembers, "that we had to wait inside the train." After ten minutes or so the police arrived and told them to get out of the train. "Only when I got off the train did I realize how bad it was. My knees still shiver."

Two stations earlier, in Itami, he had been surprised by the driver of the train. According to a spokesman of JR West a 23-year-old man with only eleven months of experience. Japanese trains always stop exactly at designated spots. Passengers wait at clearly marked places on the platform where the doors of the train end up. This way they can easily board whereas passengers on the train can quickly get off. As a result trains only need to spend a few seconds at stations. "The train overshot its designated spot." According to JR West by about 8 meters. "I think it was a lot more than that," says Oshiro. The train had to back up so that passengers could get off and others on the train. It ended up being 90 seconds behind on its extremely tight schedule. "I thought, jees, that driver is really bad."

On Tuesday it was announced that the train conductor had lied about the train overrunning by only 8 meters. It actually turned out to be 40 meters.

Possibly the driver then tried to catch up. "We drove really fast. Much faster than usual." by the next station the train was only 1 minute behind schedule. But the pace may have been too fast for the sharp curve where the train eventually derailed.

Later JR West inspectors announced that they had found traces of a rock on the tracks that may have contributed to the accident. During an interview with NHK, Satoru Sone, a expert at Kogakuin University, said the over-run at Itami Station may also have indicated a problem with the train's brakes, or faulty rails.

It is the worst accident since 1963 when three Japanese trains collided in Yokohama; 160 people were killed.

"It could have been worse," says a neighbor. "That building was built only three years ago. If it hadn't been there the train would have driven straight into the wholesale market. It would have been catastrophic."

Keywords: special_report national_news photo_essay

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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