FURUBIRA, JAPAN — For a week, rescuers have dynamited and dug through the rubble of a collapsed tunnel in northern Japan. On Friday the really tough work began: the unearthing of the 20 victims.

Workers on the snowy, windswept northern island of Hokkaido pulled out the first body late in the day. The man had been crushed to death over the steering wheel of his car as he drove to work.

The crash was so powerful that the car had been driven into the ground. He was killed when a skyscraper-sized rock slid off a mountainside and crashed through the tunnel roof last Saturday, trapping the car and a bus carrying 19 people.

Rescuers have been working since then to remove the massive rock and dig out the victims from the disaster site near a remote seaside village 550 miles north of Tokyo.

The body — believed to be that of a 20-year-old store clerk named Tatsushi Umemoto — was the first to be uncovered. Workers spotted an arm protruding from the buried bus earlier this week, but no progress had been made in digging the body out.

About half of the debris from the tunnel had been carted away as of late Friday, police said, and digging was to continue through the night.

Pulling out the bus victims was expected to take until midday Saturday. Their condition was unknown, though there have been no signs of life under the rubble.

Video footage released earlier Friday by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces showed helmeted workers picking at a mound of gray debris with shovels. Parts of Umemoto's red car door were visible. Gnarled steel frames protruding from crushed pieces of reinforced concrete were hauled away on trucks.

The crash was so powerful that the car had been driven into the ground, forcing rescuers to struggle two hours to get at the car and the body, police said.

A doctor examining the body concluded that the victim had been crushed to death. Temperatures have been below freezing since the accident, raising fears that any survivors could die of hypothermia.

The rescue effort has been torturous, and family members keeping vigil by the tunnel — many suffering from exhaustion — were given medical checkups Friday, Red Cross spokesman Yoshitaka Kumagai said.

The boulder, the size of a 20-story building, was finally was broken down Wednesday after four dynamite blasts. Since then, workers have been digging around the clock.


The rock, 210 feet tall and 120 feet wide, was believed to have weighed 50,000 tons and it appeared to have fallen directly on the bus, which was crushed to just three feet high. 22 people in all were killed.

The two-week-long rescue effort, however, was heavily criticized. Japanese authorities often are blamed for their plodding response to emergencies.

"They've wasted so much time, it's disgusting," said Furubira resident Masahiko Watanabe. "In America, they would probably have done something instantly, done whatever it takes to get people out alive, but in Japan, they do nothing until the whole bureaucracy makes a decision."

The day of the accident, officials took 11 hours to decide how to proceed.