THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

A massive, draining search for victims

By Michael Wines
New York Times / March 17, 2011

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KESENNUMA, Japan — The Shishiori River starts life nestled between 1,500-foot hills north of here and runs a bare 7.5-mile course southward until it empties into Kesennuma Bay. The end is a mean one, a short trip down a 50-foot-wide culvert, shackled in by manmade banks and girdled by highway bridges.

It was on Friday that Japan’s monster tsunami inundated that last concrete stretch, swamping the river with overturned cars and fishing boats and demolishing hundreds of homes on both banks. And it took until yesterday for searchers, entering a battered home there, to find the bodies of a man and his wife in their 70s — the last of 81 victims they recovered in the river basin.

The total, more than a third of all the confirmed deaths in Kesennuma, testifies to the searchers’ grit. But it also testifies to the enormousness of the task ahead, not just here but across northeastern Japan. To recover those 81 bodies, 300 rescuers spent four days combing a neck of land about 450 yards wide and only five-eighths of a mile long, in the center of a busy urban neighborhood.

Much of the tsunami’s havoc, here and elsewhere, was wrought in rural and even inaccessible areas — and much of that has barely been touched.

“About 20 percent of the damaged area here has been searched,’’ Ken-Ichi Sato, who heads Kesennuma’s emergency operations, said yesterday. “Parts we can’t reach because we can’t get into the area, and parts haven’t been searched because there’s so much debris to clear away.’’

Japan’s National Police Agency placed the disaster’s toll late yesterday at more than 4,300 dead and more than 8,000 missing, figures that are likely to rise sharply as more complete reports are compiled. In Kesennuma, for example, Sato said workers were able to begin assembling a list of the missing only yesterday, after some electricity was restored, and they were able to tap a computer database of the area’s residents.

Yet even with computers to pinpoint the homes of the missing, officials say, finding the victims of a tsunami as massive as this one is an especially vexing task, lacking the usual clues that lead to rescues.

“In an earthquake, if it’s within 72 hours, and we reach them, they’re likely to be found alive; and in an earthquake, you find them in place and evacuate them,’’ said Kazutaka Hiramatsu, 48, a Tokyo firefighters’ school official who was helping direct the Shishiori search.

“But because the tsunami carries everything so far away, it’s very difficult to find people. And because it’s a tsunami, when we find them, they are usually already dead.’’

Because most victims are neither in their homes nor able to call for help, the search-and-rescue teams that attend most disasters are less useful here. In this case, the first victims are being found and zipped into body bags by the workers sent in to clear paths through the debris fields that the tsunami has left behind.

“The problem,’’ Sato said, “is that there’s a lot of water, and a lot of the debris is just too big to move. So our search has become search-and-removal — we have to do it all together.’’

That leaves the most difficult work to the squads of searchers from the military, and emergency groups like the Tokyo Fire and Disaster Management Agency.

At the Shishiori River, officials first divided the debris field into sections, then deployed the searchers at the end, working slowly toward the ocean. Using a long rod, they gingerly poked through the wreckage, first exploring the buildings that were still standing and inspecting the river’s flooded automobiles for bodies, then moving to the surrounding rubble.

Then, upon reaching the sea, they went back and started over.

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