AMAGASAKI, Japan – A packed commuter train jumped the tracks in western Japan on Monday and hurtled into an apartment complex, killing 57 people and injuring more than 440 others in the deadliest Japanese rail accident in four decades.
Investigators focused on whether excessive speed or the actions of the inexperienced, 23-year-old driver caused the crash in an urban area near Amagasaki (search), about 250 miles west of Tokyo.
The packed seven-car train was carrying 580 passengers when it derailed near Amagasaki, plowing through an automobile in its path before slamming into a nine-story apartment complex.
Two of the five derailed cars were shoved inside and flattened against the wall of the building's first-floor garage. Hundreds of rescue workers and police swarmed the wreckage to recover bodies, tend to the injured and try to free at least three survivors still trapped inside 13 hours after the crash.
The 9:18 a.m. accident occurred at a curve after a straightaway. Passengers speculated that the driver — who was still unaccounted for — may have been speeding to make up for lost time after overshooting the previous station.
Investigators suspected speed and driver inexperience but weren't ruling out other explanations.
Transport Minister Kazuo Kitagawa told reporters he would order all of Japan's railway operators to conduct safety inspections in the coming days.
"It's tragic," Kitagawa said at the scene. "We have to investigate why this horrible accident happened."
A Hyogo prefectural police official Hiroshi Yamatani said the death toll had hit 57 and at least 440 other people had been taken to hospitals, including 137 with broken bones and other serious injuries.
The accident was the worst rail disaster in nearly 42 years in safety-conscious Japan, which is home to one of the world's most complex, efficient and heavily traveled rail networks. A three-train crash in November 1963 killed 161 people in Tsurumi, outside Tokyo.
Tsunemi Murakami, safety director for train operator West Japan Railway Co. (search), said it wasn't clear how fast the train was traveling.
A crew member aboard told police later he "felt the train was going faster than usual," public broadcaster NHK said, echoing comments from passengers who told the network that the driver seemed to be trying to make up for lost time after overshooting the previous station by 25 feet and then having to back up. The train was nearly two minutes behind schedule, media reports said.
The driver — identified as 23-year-old Ryujiro Takami — had obtained his train operator's license in May 2004. One month later, he overran a station and was issued a warning for his mistake, railway officials and police said.
Monday's crash occurred at a curve, where drivers are required to slow to a speed of 43 mph. An automatic braking system along that stretch of track is among the oldest in Japan and can't halt trains traveling at high speeds, transport ministry officials said. Newer systems are designed to stop trains at signs of trouble without requiring drivers to take emergency action.
Murakami, the JR West official, estimated that the train had to have been traveling at 82 miles per hour to have jumped the track purely because of excessive speed. Investigators also found evidence of rocks on the tracks, but hadn't determined whether that contributed to the crash, he said.
Experts suspected a confluence of factors was to blame.
"There are very few train accidents in Japan in which a train has flipped just because it was going too fast. There might have been several conditions at work — speed, winds, poor train maintenance or aging rails," Kazuhiko Nagase, a Kanazawa Institute of Technology professor and train expert, told NHK.
"For the train to flip, it had to be traveling at an extremely high speed," Nagase added.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (search) offered condolences to families of passengers who were killed, as did Emperor Akihito (search), in rare unscripted remarks at a news conference before an overseas goodwill trip.
Survivors said the force of the derailment sent passengers tumbling, and many were bloodied or unconscious.
"There was a violent shaking, and the next moment I was thrown to the floor ... and I landed on top of a pile of other people," passenger Tatsuya Akashi told NHK. "I didn't know what happened, and there were many people bleeding."
Distraught relatives rushed to hospitals to search lists of the injured and dead. Takamichi Hayashi said his elder brother, 19-year-old Hiroki, had called their mother on a mobile phone from inside one of the train cars just after the crash but remained unaccounted for. He said he had heard Hiroki was among those still inside the wreckage.
Late Monday, rescuers trained floodlights on the damaged cars and administered emergency medical care to three conscious survivors, but were hampered by worries about a gasoline leak, said Amagasaki Fire Department official Shohei Matsuda. Others were also inside but they were feared dead.
Deadly train accidents are rare in Japan. Five people were killed and 33 were injured in March 2000, when a Tokyo subway hit a derailed train. An accident killed 42 people in April 1991 in Shigaraki, western Japan.
An earthquake in 2004 caused a bullet train to derail — the first since the high speed trains went into service 40 years ago.