Japan Airlines flight catches fire after colliding with coastguard plane at Haneda airport

A Japan Airlines flight burst into flames on the runway of Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Sunday, after colliding with a coastguard plane that was on a mission to help earthquake victims. All passengers and crew members of the commercial flight were safely evacuated, but the fate of the coastguard personnel remains unknown.

A tragic accident amid a natural disaster

The incident occurred around 7:30 p.m. local time, when a Japan Coast Guard Beechcraft King Air 350 plane, carrying four crew members, crashed into a Japan Airlines Boeing 777-300ER plane, which was preparing to take off for Singapore with 367 passengers and 12 crew members on board.

The coastguard plane was reportedly heading to Niigata, a city on Japan’s western coast that was hit by a powerful magnitude 7.6 earthquake on Saturday, leaving at least 48 people dead and hundreds injured. The quake also triggered tsunami alerts and multiple aftershocks, causing widespread damage and disruption in the region.

A coastguard official told public broadcaster NHK that the plane was carrying relief supplies and personnel for the earthquake response. He said the cause of the collision was under investigation, and expressed his “deep regret” for the accident.

The Japan Airlines flight caught fire after the impact, sending thick black smoke into the air. Firefighters rushed to the scene and extinguished the blaze within an hour. All passengers and crew members were evacuated using emergency slides, and no serious injuries were reported among them, according to Japan Airlines.

However, the coastguard plane was severely damaged and its crew members were unaccounted for. Rescue workers were searching for them in the wreckage, but their chances of survival were slim, NHK reported.

A double blow for Japan’s western coast

The collision at Haneda airport added to the woes of Japan’s western coast, which was still reeling from the aftermath of Saturday’s earthquake. The quake struck the Noto Peninsula in the central prefecture of Ishikawa, at a depth of 10 kilometers, around 2:10 p.m. local time.

The quake was felt across a wide area of Japan, including Tokyo, and triggered tsunami alerts for the Sea of Japan coast, as well as parts of eastern Russia. The alerts were later lifted, but the quake caused significant damage and disruption in the affected areas.

The hardest-hit city was Wajima, a coastal city of more than 27,000 people, famous for its morning market and traditional lacquerware. The city was rocked by strong tremors, collapsing buildings, sparking fires and cutting off power and water supplies. At least 15 people were confirmed dead in Wajima, and dozens more were injured, according to city officials.

The quake also damaged roads, bridges and railways, hampering the rescue and relief efforts. The northern part of the Noto Peninsula, known for its scenic landscapes and rural charm, was particularly isolated, as a major road was destroyed by a landslide.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who visited the disaster zone on Sunday, said the government was mobilizing all available resources to restore access and deliver aid to the affected areas. He said helicopters, boats and planes were being used to transport goods, supplies and personnel, and vowed to do everything possible to save lives and support the recovery.

As of Sunday evening, more than 27,700 people in Ishikawa had taken shelter in 336 evacuation centers, according to the local government. Many of them were afraid to return to their homes, as the threat of aftershocks remained high. The Japan Meteorological Agency warned that strong tremors could continue for a week, and urged people to stay alert and follow safety instructions.

A reminder of Japan’s vulnerability to earthquakes and tsunamis

Saturday’s quake was the strongest to hit Japan since the devastating 9.0 magnitude quake that struck the northeastern coast on March 11, 2011, triggering a massive tsunami that killed nearly 20,000 people and caused a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.

The 2011 disaster, which was one of the worst in Japan’s history, exposed the country’s vulnerability to natural disasters and raised questions about its preparedness and response capabilities. It also sparked a nationwide debate about the safety and future of nuclear power in Japan, which relied heavily on atomic energy before the crisis.

Since then, Japan has taken steps to improve its disaster management system, strengthen its infrastructure and reduce its dependence on nuclear power. However, the country still faces the challenge of coping with frequent and unpredictable seismic activity, as it lies along the Pacific Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped belt of tectonic plates that is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Japan has experienced more than 20 earthquakes of magnitude 6 or higher since 2011, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The latest one, which struck the western coast on Saturday, was a grim reminder of the risks and uncertainties that Japan faces as it strives to rebuild and recover from past tragedies.

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