Harumi Watanabe's last words to her parents were a desperate plea to "stay together" as a tsunami crashed through the windows and engulfed their family home with water, mud and wreckage.

She had rushed to help them as soon as the earthquake struck about 30 minutes earlier. "I closed my shop and drove home as quickly as I could," said Watanabe. "But there wasn't time to save them. They were old and too weak to walk so I couldn't get them in the car in time”. They were still in the living room when the surge hit. Though she gripped their hands, it was too strong. Her elderly mother and father were ripped from her grasp, screaming "I can't breathe" before they were dragged down.

Ms. Watanabe was then left fighting for her own life. "I stood on the furniture, but the water came up to my neck. There was only a narrow band of air below the ceiling. I thought I would die."

Ms. Watanabe is one of a fortunate few residents to survive in Shintona, a coastal town close to the epicentre of Japan's worst earthquake since records began and one of the worst affected by the devastating tsunami that followed it.

The nearby bay is filled with cars, concrete and half-sunken homes uprooted from their foundations. A railway line has been ripped from the ground and twisted vertically like a garden fence. Cars and motorbikes lie broken and so roughly re-parked by the tsunami that some balance precariously on their bonnets. Emergency and media helicopters buzz overhead and the bereaved sob by the side of the road. The air is rich with the rotting smell of disaster and death.

Self-defence force personnel and rescue workers search for bodies amid the mud. Their work is sporadically interrupted by earthquake alerts and tsunami warnings, but they do not have to look far.

When found, the dead are wrapped in blue tarpaulins and laid on military stretchers.

"We have found 50 bodies today and there'll be more," said an officer in the self-defence forces as his team took a quick lunchbreak. "We're putting more efforts into rescue elsewhere as there is very little chance of anyone surviving here."

The death toll in and around this area looks certain to rise. Drive east from Sendai and there are several stretches of devastated coastline.

Hundreds of bodies have reportedly been discovered in Xintomei and Nobiru, and further round the coast in Minami Shirazu, nearly 10,000 people are reportedly missing after the town was engulfed by the tsunami.

Many of the victims are likely to be elderly people, which could prove one of the defining characteristics of this disaster. After the Sichuan earthquake in China - in which an estimated 90,000 people died - the focus

was on building design and the large numbers of children who died in school collapses. In Shintona, however, buildings have - for the most part - proved remarkably resilient. Several locals said the young had been able to flee quickly when the tsunami warning was issued, but that older people found it harder to run.

"There are many old people here. We have evacuation drills, but people could not get to the meeting place in time. The tsunami was beyond our expectations. We must reflect on our shortcomings," said Jiro Saito, the head of the local disaster countermeasures committee.

Japan is proud of having the world's longest life expectancy, which is particularly evident in rural areas. Shintona's large population of elderly people is evident in the intimate belongings now scattered in the muddy streets,12-inch vinyl albums of Enka (Japanese blues) classics, a walking stick and tatami mats.

This community is home to one of Miyagi's first care homes for elderly people. Its manager, Kiyoko Kawanami, said she was only able to confirm that 20 of the 90 residents are safe. "We don't know what happened to them.

The tsunami hit while we were trying to organise an evacuation," she said.

Ms. Kawanami took one group to the emergency shelter in Nobiru primary school. "On the way back I was stuck in traffic. There was an alarm. People screamed at me to get out of the car and run uphill. It saved me. My feet got wet but nothing else."

The fate of the other residents remains unclear. Shigejiro Murayama had come to look for his lost brother. While his wife cried and sighed beside him, he silently progressed as quickly as he was able with a walking stick. But he had to turn back when he saw what had happened.

"There is no road left," he laughed darkly. "This is a mess. Look at what has happened."

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