Rail chief takes responsibility for Japanese rail crash

The head of East Japan Railway Company apologised today for a fatal train crash that killed at least five people on Christmas Day, saying he took full responsibility for the incident.

Masatake Matsuda’s comments came as rescuers continued searching for two passengers possibly still trapped in the wreckage.

All six carriages of the train – reportedly travelling up to 62 mph – derailed on Sunday in rural Yamagata prefecture (state), 180 miles north of Tokyo, during a sudden gust in a blizzard. The first three cars flipped onto their sides and skidded along the snow embankment, and one of them slammed into a pig shed.

“As the chief executive officer, I have complete responsibility,” Matsuda said, who became chairman of JR East in 2000. “As a top officer entrusted to take care of human lives, the course of my fate as an officer is always on my mind.”

While Matsuda fell short of resigning his post over the crash, the derailment has raised questions about why the train was travelling when high-speed winds were registered in the area.

Television footage today showed crews hoisting crumpled, snow-covered train cars away from the crash site.

Authorities initially believed that four people died, but renewed their search for victims on Tuesday following reports that three other passengers were missing. Workers later found the body of a 28-year-old woman trapped under the wreckage.

Passengers had said that they saw a woman in her 30s with her young daughter, but that neither had appeared among the dead or rescued.

On Tuesday, a 41-year-old woman in Akita, just south of Yamagata, told the police she was on the train with her young daughter and that they might be the ones for whom police were still searching, according to a Yamagata police official.

The official said however, that the police cannot exclude the possibility of others still trapped and that about 340 rescue workers were continuing to search.

The wreck followed a major train accident on April 25 in Amagasaki in western Japan that killed 107 people and injured more than 500 others – Japan’s worst since 1963.

High speed was blamed in that crash, and an investigation showed drivers under pressure to stick to timetables sometimes run trains too fast.

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