TOKYO -- A Japan Air Lines jumbo jet carrying 524 people on a domestic flight slammed into a mountain and burst into flames today in central Japan after a cabin door blew open. There was no immediate report on casualties or survivors.
The Boeing 747, JAL Flight 123, was en route from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to the western city of Osaka when it went down off course in the district of Nagano some 45 minutes after its 6:12 p.m. (5:12 a.m. EDT) takeoff, officials said.
Japan Air Lines said the plane carried 509 passengers and a crew of 15. A JAL spokesman said 21 non-Japanese were aboard and issued preliminary identifications of 18 but further details were not immediately available.
JAL officials said the plane was packed with vacationers traveling for the Obon festival, a religious holiday week when Japanese visit family homes and pay respects to their ancestors.
If all the passengers aboard were killed, the crash would be the worst single plane accident and the second worst air disaster in aviation history. It would also be Japan's worst aviation disaster.
JAL officials said the pilot, Capt. Masami Takahama, 49, radioed at 6:39 p.m. that a back cabin door had burst its seal and the cabin had depressurized. He said he was diverting to attempt an emergency landing at the nearby U.S. Air Force base at Yokota.
The plane vanished from radar screens 20 minutes later.
A Japan Self-Defense Forces spokesman said the plane slammed into the 6,900-foot Mount Ogura near the village of Ikeimura, some 370 miles northwest of Tokyo, in the rural mountainous area.
A Usuda police spokesman said the area was so mountainous and rugged that rescue teams were having trouble reaching the crash site.
The defense source said Japanese military aircraft found burning wreckage on the side of the mountain.
U.S. officials said the Air Force had set up an emergency command center at Yokota but had not yet been asked for assistance by Japanese authorities.
The Nagano police reported rain and lightning at the time of the crash.
Police in Usuda, a town near the crash site, said residents reported seeing a flaming, low-flying plane passing overhead but it was not clear whether the plane caught fire before the crash. The witnesses said the craft cut a wide burning swath as it slammed into the wooded hillsides.
One witness told Kyodo news service that he saw 'red flames shoot up' from a large aircraft near the border of Nagano and Gunma prefectures and then saw black smoke billowing from the aircraft.
Other officials told Japanese news agencies that burning wreckage was spread over a 3-mile area.
Kyodo quoted witnesses in the area as having spotted a 'burning falling object ... in a wooded area.' The crew of a U.S. Air Force C-130 transport plane nearby also reported seeing a plane aflame.
In the worst single plane disaster to date, 346 people were killed March 3, 1974, when a Turkish DC-10 jet crashed at Ermenonville near Paris.
The worst disaster in aviation history occurred on March 27, 1977, when 582 people were killed in the collision of a KLM Boeing 747 and a taxiing chartered Pan-Am 747 at Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain.