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JAPAN NOTEBOOK

As disaster hit, thin line between life and death emerged

March 15, 2011

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As the violent shaking began, Masashi Imai wrapped his arms around the wheelchair that held his disabled wife and clung on with all his strength.

Their home in Tagajo, Japan, lurched and swayed Friday as the ground fell away. The power went out. Imai switched on his wire radio and heard the warning. Then came the deluge.

Imai picked up his wife’s limp body and carried her to the second floor.

“Father! Father!’’ screamed a girl from a neighboring house. Many of Imai’s neighbors had nowhere to run, because their houses had only one story. Eventually, the girl’s voice went silent.

In the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, the line between life and death proved very thin — just one story high, in Imai’s case, or little more than a bus length away from a wall of water. Even along the killing zone of the northeastern coast, some buildings and entire neighborhoods were spared while others were obliterated.

As Imai remembers his older neighbors who probably died in their houses, he breaks into tears.

“This river has given us so much, but on Friday it brought disaster,’’ said the 56-year-old, a former hotel worker who quit his job to care for his wife of 33 years. “Even now, when I sit or close my eyes, I still feel like it is shaking.’’ — ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dash for higher ground
In Natori, Yuta Saga, 21, was picking up broken cups after the earthquake when he heard sirens and screams of “Tsunami!’’ He grabbed his mother by the arm and ran to the junior high school, the tallest building around.

Saga and his mother found the stairs to the roof clogged with older people who appeared unable to muster the strength to climb them. Some were just sitting or lying on the steps. As the bottom floor filled with fleeing residents, the wave hit. People were being pushed out of the way as they struggled to escape.

Saga said one woman handed him her infant. “Please, at least save the baby!’’ she pleaded as water rose above his chest.

He grabbed the baby and ran up the stairs. Many of those still at the foot of the stairs were washed away. — NEW YORK TIMES

Running out of food
Many survivors of the disaster have been living a hand-to-mouth existence for days.

Osamu Hayasaka of Tagajo, 61, said the government hasn’t provided anything to people who did not move into the refugee centers. He strapped two cardboard boxes of beverages on his red bicycle to take home to his family of six, including his sick mother and neighbors.

Hayasaka said the supermarkets are running out of goods. He lined up two hours Sunday and was allowed to buy just a few items, including a grapefruit and an orange.

In a community center crammed with hundreds of people, there is slightly more to eat. “Today I had some cake and an orange,’’ said Yuto Hariyu, 15, whose middle school was destroyed the day before his graduation ceremony.

At a government-run center for the elderly on the outskirts of the city, the food allotment yesterday was two rice balls, one in the morning and one at night, said Takahashi Sata, 43, who works at the center. “Yesterday I had two rice crackers and a bottle of water,’’ he said. “Today there is nothing for anyone.’’ — ASSOCIATED PRESS

A city cut in two
Snow-covered mountains rise above Sendai, a coastal city that was cleaved in two by the tsunami. Downtown office blocks and fancy boutiques were largely untouched by the quake and tsunami, but the city’s industrial zones were a mud-clogged expanse of wreckage and ruin.

The dividing line in Sendai was an inlet from the sea, now entirely still but swollen with tires, the remains of houses, and other detritus left by the tsunami, which sent 30-foot waves surging into the coast. A shattered road dropped chunks of asphalt into the water. Nearby was a wrecked Toyota hatchback and a heap of gas canisters and workers’ helmets. Rescue workers in blue hats and big rubber boots fanned out through the wreckage early yesterday.

Three police officers, one carrying a stretcher, poked through rubble in search of a corpse. They found nothing and drove off in an ambulance. Marked on the back of their blue uniforms were the English words “Criminal Investigation Miyagi Police.’’

Others went about their more mundane morning rituals. A young woman in a sweat suit jogged along the no-longer frothing water’s edge, dancing around rubble. On a leash, two Pekingese dogs ran along beside her. — WASHINGTON POST

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