JAPAN - The driver of a bus that smashed into an expressway wall, killing seven passengers, rested facedown in his seat during a break in the journey and suddenly braked several times just before Sunday's accident, according to relatives of several passengers.
Some passengers have said they were disturbed by how exhausted the driver appeared just before the bus plowed into the noise-blocking wall on the Kanetsu Expressway in Fujioka, Gunma Prefecture, about 6-1/2 hours after it left JR Kanazawa Station.
Hikaru Makide, a 23-year-old Ishikawa prefectural official, was sitting in the front seat of the bus. She was alarmed by the apparent fatigue affecting the 43-year-old driver, Kazan Kono.
"When I looked at the driver, he was often checking the satellite navigation system, and he slammed on the brakes several times. I was really worried," Makide, who was severely injured in the accident, reportedly told her father.
Satoshi Korin, a 22-year-old senior student of Kanazawa Institute of Technology, was sitting on the right side near the back of the bus and was slightly injured. He told his mother the driver announced the bus would stop for a break at a rest area at about 4 a.m.--about 40 minutes before the accident.
Although Korin was asleep and did not hear the announcement, he said other passengers were saying the driver's voice was unclear and hard to understand. He saw the driver facedown over the steering wheel during the break. "He seems to be really tired," Korin quoted another passenger as saying anxiously.
Korin was woken by the noise of the impact, and got out of the bus on his own. After being treated for a head cut, he returned to Kanazawa on Sunday night.
He reportedly told his mother his seatbelt appeared to be broken and would not fasten.
According to the police, some of the injured passengers said the bus had stopped for two or three breaks.
An inspection by police Monday concluded that the bus first hit a guardrail on its left while making a gentle left-hand turn, and then its left front crashed into the 2.9-meter-high wall. The wall sliced through about 10.5 meters of the 12-meter-long bus.
A senior officer of the Gunma prefectural police said the bus seemed to lurch to the left after impact, a sudden movement that compounded the damage inside the vehicle.
The first five or six seats on the left side were wrecked beyond recognition. Many of the deaths occurred in this section.
Police tried to re-create the destruction inside the bus by lining up the seats next to the smashed vehicle.
Bus didn't take planned route
The bus was initially scheduled to travel on the Joshinetsu Expressway, but somehow ended up on the Kanetsu Expressway--a route that is 35 kilometers longer, it has been learned.
The bus went past a junction to enter the Joshinetsu Expressway. Another bus in the same trip to Tokyo Disneyland in Urayasu, Chiba Prefecture, took the Joshinetsu route as planned.
According to Harvest Holdings, the tour organizer in Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, a route schedule provided to the bus operator, Rikuentai, said the vehicle would use the Joshinetsu Expressway. However, it was informed after the accident by Rikuentai, which is based in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, that the bus had been on the Kanetsu Expressway.