Search for relatives is daunting
ONAGAWA, Japan — A cold wind blowing at her back, Tayo Kitamura knelt beside her mother’s body and pressed her palm against the blue plastic tarpaulin rescue workers had just wrapped the corpse in. She leaned in as if to hug the body, then closed her eyes tightly as tears slid down her cheeks.
Firefighters had just pulled her 69-year-old mother, Kuniko, from the rubble of Onagawa, a once vibrant fishing town that was obliterated when the recent tsunami converted it into a landscape of death and destruction.
Eight days after one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded unleashed the cataclysmic wave, desperate families are still searching for loved ones in the ruins of lost towns.
The painstaking task must be completed before heavy machinery can be called in en masse to begin the next phase: clearing away the oceans of debris that are all that is left of much of northeastern Japan’s coast. So far, police have confirmed more than 7,300 deaths. More than 11,000 are missing and feared dead.
The search repeats itself up and down the coast. In Kesennuma, Sachiko Kikuta walks 12 miles a day, looking for signs of her sister. She does not think about the possibility that she might not be alive.
“We talk about how the search is going, but we don’t talk about the worst that might have happened, that I might not find her,’’ said the 27-year-old.
In the cold remains of Onagawa yesterday, one boy ignored his own worst-case scenario, calling hopelessly across the wasteland for his mother. “Yuki! Yuki!’’
The call seemed futile.
The March 11 tsunami was so powerful it sucked away entire towns. With almost no survivors amid the wreckage, rescue teams are searching almost exclusively for the dead. Residents say half of Onagawa’s 10,000 people are gone.
The boy and his family pulled up wooden beams and iron bars from a tangled mass of debris that used to be his mother’s home and cast them aside. She was not there.
Mizue Yamamura, 76, was searching for her husband in Onagawa. She poked a thin stick against a soiled white cloth that looked like it could be a bloated corpse. It was not.
“I think a lot of bodies are in there,’’ she said, looking up toward a mountainous heap of broken wooden planks that once formed rows of houses. The rescuers “have not even begun to search under here.’’
When the earthquake shook her third-floor apartment, Yamamura hurried outside with her husband, Yoshio, and began climbing a tree-lined hillside.
Yoshio was wearing sandals, though, and turned back to get a pair of shoes.
She never saw him again.
“One moment changed everything,’’ she said, still wearing the clothes she had on when they fled together. “Between life and death. A matter of seconds.’’
Yamamura is now totally isolated from her family, unable to call her two daughters and two grandchildren, who live elsewhere in the island nation. Their numbers were in her ruined apartment, her cellphone is gone, and there is no longer cellular reception in Onagawa.
Elsewhere, firefighters unearthed another body. They placed it under a tarp, and a woman searching for a relative steeled herself to look. It was no one she knew, but tears welled in her eyes.
Shortly after the disaster struck, Kitamura tried to call her mother from her own home in Sendai — a ruined city to the south. The call never went through.
When she finally made it here last week, she went to her mother’s house to find it had been ripped whole from its foundation and hurled on top of a neighboring home. A smashed gray car covered in debris is now embedded upside down on top of it.
Kitamura pointed to a broken wooden panel sticking out of the debris. “I think that wall is the wall of my mother’s home,’’ she said.
She asked a passing team of firefighters to search it. Shortly after, they hauled out a corpse, wrapped it in a tarp and asked her to look.
“It’s her,’’ Kitamura said, nodding solemnly.