TOKYO — Hundreds of cars and trucks were trapped on highways on Friday after heavy snowfall brought chaos to northwest Japan.
More than 2,000 vehicles were stuck at the peak of the snowfall on Thursday, according to Nexco East, the company that manages the area's highways. By 3 p.m. (1 a.m. ET) Friday, that number had fallen to at least 670.
Some 700 rescuers may take until Saturday morning to free them all, according to Nexco East, which is short for East Nippon Expressway Company.
"I would like to apologize for the extensive period of closure along the Kanetsu Expressway caused by snow, and particularly for trapping our customers for a long period of time," Nexco East's president, Toru Obata, said at a press conference.
Obata said damp and heavy snow that couldn't be moved by ploughs had trapped large trucks on Wednesday.
"The government will do its utmost to rescue anyone who is stuck in their vehicle," the government's top spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, said at a regular briefing.
Troops from Japan's Self-Defense Force were delivering food, gasoline and blankets to the stranded drivers, and helping clear snow. Fire service crews were rescuing some drivers, including at least three people who were taken to hospital, according to public broadcaster NHK.
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As highway workers in hard-hit areas such as Niigata prefecture cleared snow several feet deep in places, the Meteorological Agency warned of heavier snow over the weekend along the Sea of Japan coast.
Some places are bracing for as much as 80 cm (32 inches) of snow amid a cold snap that has affected much of the country.
Arata Yamamoto reported from Tokyo; Patrick Smith reported from London.
Reuters contributed to this report.