A Japanese soldier grins as he cradles a tiny baby in a fuzzy pink blanket, plucked from a wreckage-blocked house three days after a powerful earthquake and tsunami flattened much of the country’s north-eastern coastline.

The moment -- captured by a photographer from leading Japanese daily Yomiuri and published by newspapers and websites worldwide -- evoked a rare glimmer of hope amid so much destruction and death from the March 11 disasters that killed an estimated 26,000 people.

Weeks later, 5-month-old Iroha Ishikawa is now healthy and safe, living at a shelter inside an elementary school with her parents in Ishinomaki, 320 km northeast of Tokyo.

“I’m happy that we were rescued, but there is a lot of sadness behind it -- many families didn’t make it,” the infant’s mother, Yuki Ishikawa, tells The Associated Press.

Ishikawa, 41, says she was home with her baby daughter on the Friday afternoon when the magnitude-9 earthquake hit, rattling her home and toppling furniture. She began packing her car to flee when her husband, Takatoshi, returned from work and said he heard strange noises -- the sounds of a powerful tsunami blasting its way through their neighbourhood near the shore.

The mother grabbed only Iroha and a baby bag as she ran for safety. It had a thermos with some hot water, two cans of milk, three baby bottles and some diapers in it.

They fled to the second story of a neighbour’s house along with the couple that lived there. A minute later the tsunami crashed through the first floor.

“We saw all kinds of things get washed by in the waters -- debris, cars, and to be honest, bodies,” she says. “We stayed there for two days with nothing to eat or drink, except for what the baby had.”

Two days after the tsunami, the waters receded, and the two men were able to scrounge some food. The group of five was located by soldiers, who asked them to move to a crowded shelter closer to the shore. They declined, and then a powerful aftershock sent everyone scrambling for safety. The troops returned the next day.

“The doors of the house were blocked by cars and other debris, so we had to go out through a window. The soldiers helped us out through the window, and that was when the picture was taken,” Yuki Ishikawa says.

Since then, the Ishikawas have been living in the elementary school, with father Takatoshi so busy fixing pipes at damaged buildings that he has had little time to clean up their own home. The mother says she can’t really think very far into the future, but she hopes they can move to temporary housing or somewhere with more privacy.

As for the widely viewed photo, she says it is such a positive image that it masks some of the tragedy of the tsunami.

“I don’t really have any feelings about the picture itself,” Iroha’s mother says. “I just want people to know the reality of what happened here.”

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