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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

LIVES STILL NOT BACK ON TRACK

Answers elude Hyogo train crash victims


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Tuesday marks the first anniversary of one of the nation's worst postwar train crashes, and still-traumatized survivors and relatives of the dead continue to search for answers.

News photo
Witnesses view diagrams of train cars as they exchange information concerning the positioning of those killed or injured in the April 2005 derailment of a West Japan Railway Co. train, during their first meeting, held April 6, in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

On the morning of April 25, 2005, a speeding commuter train on West Japan Railway Co.'s Fukuchiyama Line jumped the tracks on a tight curve and slammed into a trackside condominium high-rise in Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture.

The crash, Japan's fourth-deadliest since 1945, claimed 107 lives on board the train, including the driver, and left nearly 540 people injured.

Police investigators later said the train's 23-year-old driver, Ryujiro Takami, who is believed to have been trying to make up for lost time, was mainly to blame, although the central government is still investigating and has yet to issue a final report.

Takami overshot the platform at the previous station and was running about 90 seconds behind schedule. The train derailed while rounding a curve at high speed and prefectural police believe he was trying to make up for lost time rather than risk punishment for being late -- something, according to employees, JR West had a penchant for.

Since the accident, JR West officials have refused to confirm or deny the police reports, saying only the exact cause has yet to be officially determined.

JR West's silence, however, has angered survivors and those who lost loved ones. Last June, some of them formed the 4/25 Network support group to demand an explanation from the carrier, to no avail.

While JR West officials have offered various apologies and general explanations to the public over the past year, they have yet to agree to meet privately with the group, which now includes relatives of 60 people who died as well as 25 who were injured.

"Last October, we asked to meet directly with the president of JR West, but were refused," said Takemune Sato, a lawyer who serves an adviser to the group. "Nor has the company agreed to send a representative to any of the network's regular meetings to answer our questions."

Sato said legal action against the company is possible but added an official conclusion from the government on the accident's cause is preferred so the victims will have a stronger legal footing on which to sue.

"Police investigators say they believe the driver was the main cause, but the transport ministry continues to investigate," he said. "The question is, where in the chain of events that led to the accident are the driver's actions to be placed? The final, official answer from the ministry is crucial in determining whether there is a strong case against JR West for negligence."

Meanwhile, the victims continue to suffer.

Last month, the Hyogo Prefecture Institute for Traumatic Stress announced that a survey of 238 people who were injured found that 44 percent were suffering from what appeared to be posttraumatic stress disorder. Some respondents told the institute they cannot board a train without feeling tired or uneasy.

But while the institute has offered to dispatch counselors and mental health experts to the homes of survivors, as of mid-April, none has accepted the offer, citing a lack of desire to discuss the accident, according to institute officials.

"For the next of kin and survivors, the shock of the accident still lingers," said Mitsuko Fujisaki, a spokeswoman for the 4/25 Network whose daughter, Michiko Nomura, 40, was killed in the crash.

"Their situation is made worse by the fact that they want to know why the accident happened but can't get any detailed answers from either JR West or the government."

Fujisaki said JR West officials paid the funeral expenses of her daughter and all of those who died, and have offered money to survivors for things like transportation expenses to and from the hospital.

Last month, JR West also said it would provide long-term, interest-free education loans to students or their families who proved to the carrier's satisfaction that they suffered financially as a result of the accident. The announcement came after months of intense pressure by parents in and out of the network whose offspring were on the train.

Now, a year after the accident, with signs that PTSD continues and media surveys showing that up to one-third of the survivors are either unemployed or taking extended breaks from school, there is talk of pushing JR West harder to take financial responsibility for the victims.

"There are those who are urging a lawsuit against JR West for further compensation, like the kind of corporate negligence lawsuits you see in the United States," Fujisaki said.

"But families and survivors are not ready to think about putting a monetary value on the life of their loved ones. At some point, a damages suit will probably be filed against JR West. But right now, all we can really do is try to help each other cope with the pain and the grief."



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