Japan Airlines jumbo crash remembered 30 years later

Relatives of Japan Airlines crash victims light candles during the memorial ceremony in Ueno village, Gunma prefecture on Aug 12, 2015.
Relatives of Japan Airlines crash victims light candles during the memorial ceremony in Ueno village, Gunma prefecture on Aug 12, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

UENO, Japan (AFP) - Hundreds of people attended ceremonies Wednesday marking the 30th anniversary of a Japan Airlines jumbo jet crash that killed 520 people on board, the deadliest single-aircraft disaster in history.

The doomed Boeing 747 had begun the hour-long flight from Japan's capital to Osaka when it crashed into a mountain about 120km northwest of Tokyo on August 12, 1985.

In all 509 passengers including a dozen infants and 15 crew were on board. Just four passengers survived.

Bereaved relatives of victims make an annual pilgrimage to Osutaka Ridge, along with JAL president Yoshiharu Ueki who walked the trail to a memorial near the crash site.

"I offer my regrets and prayers to the 520 people who died," Ueki told reporters.

"I want to once again deeply apologise for the great pain, sorrow and the burden on bereaved families and others affected by this for such a long time. Nothing is more important than peoples' lives."

As night fell, a crowd near the crash site joined hands and prayed in a moment of silence at the exact time of the crash - 6.56pm - in front of a monument decorated with flowers and 520 candles for each victim.

Earlier, television footage showed some victims' relatives starting their climb up the steep mountain trail before dawn.

Some blew soap bubbles to pay tribute to the children who died in the accident, their names included on a memorial listing the victims.

Fumiyo Takihita, 72, lost her 11-year-old son in the accident.

"If he was still living, he would be 41 now. In my mind, he is still 11," she told AFP.

"As I climbed the mountain, I wondered about how he would have grown up. I hope another accident like this will never be repeated."

Yumiko Yoshino, 56, came to the memorial for the first time to mourn her friend who was a cabin attendant on the doomed flight.

"She was young and lost her life. I told myself that I have to live on for her," Yoshino said.

- 'Uncontrollable' -

Japan Airlines Flight 123 took off from Tokyo's Haneda airport at 6.12 pm local time and quickly ran into trouble, with a loud noise heard about 10 minutes into the trip.

The crew quickly declared an emergency and fought to regain control over the aircraft. It crashed into the mountain about 45 minutes into the flight.

It was later determined that the bulkhead burst, rupturing hydraulic systems and leaving the plane uncontrollable.

A government-appointed investigation panel blamed the accident on improper repairs to the rear bulkhead seven years earlier.

In 1988 local police served papers on 20 people from JAL, the transport ministry and Boeing on suspicion of professional negligence resulting in death and injury.

But prosecutors decided not to indict anyone.

"It can never be forgotten," Satoshi Iizuka, a former police officer who identified bodies at the site three decades ago, told broadcaster TV Asahi as he choked back tears.

"Today, people tend to prioritise speed over safety."

This year's anniversary comes several days after the hunt for more wreckage from missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370 resumed on France's Reunion island in the Indian Ocean after being suspended last week.

A wing part was found on the island in late July and confirmed by the Malaysian prime minister to be part of the Boeing 777 that disappeared on March 8, 2014 with 239 people onboard.

The world's worst airline disaster was the 1977 runway collision of two 747s at Tenerife in the Canary Islands that left 583 dead.