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Updated: March 19, 2011 18:40 IST

Japanese search the rubble for dead before cleanup

AP
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Japanese soldiers carry what appears to be the body of a victim at the devastated city of Ishinomaki, northeastern Japan, on Saturday, following last week's massive earthquake and resulting tsunami. Photo: AP.
Japanese soldiers carry what appears to be the body of a victim at the devastated city of Ishinomaki, northeastern Japan, on Saturday, following last week's massive earthquake and resulting tsunami. Photo: AP.

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.

A cold wind blowing at her back, Tayo Kitamura knelt beside her mother’s body and pressed her palm against the blue plastic tarp 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 last week’s 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’s left of much of northeastern Japan’s coast. So far, police have confirmed more then 7,300 deaths. Another 10,900 are missing and feared dead.

The search repeats itself up and down the coast. In Kesennuma, Sachiko Kikuta walks 12 miles (20 kilometers) 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 on Saturday, one boy ignores 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 also searching for her husband in Onagawa on Saturday. She poked a thin stick against a soiled white cloth that looked like it could be a bloated corpse.

“I think a lot of bodies are in there,” she said, looking up towards 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 only 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.”

Ms. Yamamura is now totally isolated from her family, able to call neither her two daughters nor her two grandchildren, who all live elsewhere in the island nation. Their numbers were in her ruined apartment, her cell phone is gone, and, anyway, there is no longer cellular reception in Onagawa.

A giant blue—bottomed boat sits overturned beside their shattered apartment. Here, a mile (two kilometers) from the town’s harbour, the ocean is not even visible. The hills on both sides channelled tsunami’s energy, propelling it deep into the valley.

Elsewhere, firefighters have 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 anyway. Then she bowed and walked away.

Shortly after the disaster struck, Kitamura tried to call her mother from her own home in Sendai - a ruined city father south. The call never went through.

When she finally made it here last week, she went to her mother’s house to find it no longer there. The building had been ripped whole from its foundation and hurled by the rushing torrent on top of a neighbouring home. A smashed gray car covered in debris was now embedded upside down on top of it.

Ms. 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. And shortly after, they hauled out a corpse, wrapped it in a tarp and asked her to look.

“It’s her,” Ms. Kitamura said, nodding solemnly.

“At least they have found her, at least you can have closure,” a man in a blue jacket watching the scene told her. “This is a good thing.”

Ms. Kitamura nodded again.

One of the firefighters noted Kuniko’s name and date of birth in a red binder, then bowed and walked away.

Once the rescuers were gone, Ms. Kitamura returned alone to her mother’s body. She knelt down on her knees, leaned in close and began to weep, caressing the blue bag slowly, over and over, as she looked up toward her ruined home.

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