Rail chief takes responsibility for fatal Japanese train crash

The head of East Japan Railway Co. apologized Thursday for a fatal train crash that killed at least five people on Christmas Day, saying he takes full responsibility for the mishap. Masatake Matsuda's comments came as rescuers continued searching for two passengers possibly still trapped in the wreckage. All six cars of the train, reportedly traveling up to 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph), derailed Sunday in rural Yamagata prefecture (state), 290 kilometers (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 traveling when high-speed winds were registered in the area. Television footage Thursday 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 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 that 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 who declined to be named citing office policy.

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, reports the AP. I.L.

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