Japan: Search for missing continues

2011-03-16 13:53

Minamisanriku - Tomeko Sato spent two agonising days searching for her daughter after the giant waves crashed ashore. They are now looking for 10 missing relatives in the wasteland they once called home.

Some of them lived near the spot where Sato is standing in the Japanese fishing town of Minamisanriku, but all that remains to indicate there were ever any homes here in the muddy flood plain are concrete foundations.

"I haven't been able to get in contact with them. I'm very worried about them," said the 54-year-old Sato, who lost her house in the disaster.

"I was very surprised by the power of the tsunami... next time, I will live on the hill and hope it never happens again."

Around half of the 17 000 people who once lived in Minamisanriku have been missing since the giant wall of water generated by a 9.0-magnitude earthquake- the biggest ever recorded in Japan - smashed into the coastal town.

The surge obliterated nearly everything in its path for at least 1km inland. So far, 1 000 bodies have been recovered in the town, located in a seemingly sheltered valley on the country's northeast coast.

Chances of rescue slim

But Takashi Takashita, commander of a fire and rescue unit from the western city of Kyoto, says about 8 000 people are still unaccounted for, and while hopes of finding survivors are nearly extinguished, he is not ready to give up.

"The chances of finding people alive are slim, but we want to try to find missing people, not bodies," said Takashita.

He then returned to his task - using a golf club to prod a tangled clump of wooden debris, knotted with fishing nets and clothing.

Behind him, a vast field littered with hundreds of similar piles stretches out into the distance.

Rescue workers meticulously comb the muddy no-man's-land, but the area is so vast and the challenge of picking through the debris so great that Takeshita said teams would be searching for bodies for up to a week.

While the ground is littered with the accumulated possessions of thousands of lives - a mobile phone, wedding pictures and even a samurai sword - there is no sign of any bodies in the area.

The tsunami swept up buildings and cars with such force that most were pulverised. What was not destroyed as the wave poured into the town was hit as the deluge receded.

Defences no match for tsunami

Even houses on the hillside next to the town show signs of damage, and household items were washed up onto the higher ground.

Takatoshi Shiraishi, a driver for the local hospital - almost the only building in the entire area left standing - spent his 69th birthday walking through the remains of his town.

He said Minamisanriku's new sea defences - built after a tsunami that struck decades ago - had proved no match for the ferocity of the wall of water, which smashed through huge concrete walls as it thundered through town.

"People thought they would be safe behind the barriers... But this time the tsunami was a lot longer and twice as powerful," Shiraishi said.

"I remember that last time the tsunami came up to the city hall, so everybody thought that this time behind the building would be safe, but this wave came over the city hall."

The building, which used to stand near the hospital, has vanished.

At the local junior high school, which has been transformed into a temporary refuge for around 340 people, city hall worker Yasunori Yamauchi said he had had no information about how many of his colleagues were missing.

"Fifty years ago, the tsunami was about 5.2m high and this time it was over 10m. Some people thought it was safe on top of buildings but they were hit as well," Yamauchi said.