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Rare survivors in Japanese village that was mostly sucked out to sea

One woman was able to stay in her vehicle as it rode atop the waves in Minamisanriku. Two others made it to higher ground and clung to a tree with all their strength. Thousands of others apparently were not so lucky.

March 15, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • A searcher in the town of Minamisanriku, destroyed by last week's tsunami, continues to look for victims.
A searcher in the town of Minamisanriku, destroyed by last week's… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Minamisanriku, Japan — Looking back, Emiko Chiba has no idea how long her silver Suzuki rode the waves of a giant tsunami or even whether she had trouble breathing inside of it. What's clear is that she ranks among the very lucky in what may be Japan's most unfortunate town.

Chiba was in her car Friday afternoon when the tsunami slammed into this small farming, fishing and beach community. As the mountain of water hurtled up a narrow valley, the Suzuki somehow was lifted up rather than plowed beneath its waves.

Another resident found the 42-year-old shaken and battered, and walked with her for an hour to the nearest standing house, where her husband, Kazahiro, eventually found her.

Photos: Scenes of earthquake destruction

Amid the unspeakable destruction that unfolded in just a few minutes during Friday's earthquake and tsunami, Minamisanriku stands out. An estimated 10,000 of its 16,000 people are missing and presumed dead, perhaps the most devastating toll in the disaster zone.

Among the dead is Kazahiro's mother. His father is missing.

On Tuesday, Emiko and Kazahiro found their car in the debris field. They took a blue pail, a black thermos, an umbrella, a sun visor and a windshield scraper they'd scrounged from the car and headed back out of the valley.

Emiko has been unwilling to sleep. She looked shellshocked, barely lifting her eyes above the ground, her face grim and dark. "It's like a bad dream," said Kazahiro. "It's a nightmare."

In Sendai, the nearest city, Yoshiko Tsuzuki, a 55-year-old homemaker, was even more definitive about the fate of Minamisanriku. "It's been flattened, finished," she said, standing beside her husband and 16-year-old daughter. "I can't find my three sisters and parents in Minamisanriku. So many died, we can't find them and we're so anxious."

Mitsuko Koshi, 82, and Shizuka Hoshi, 65, were also among the lucky. The two women were in their shared home Friday afternoon when the earthquake hit. As a precaution, they headed for higher ground.

Their house was located along the narrow valley, which concentrated the full force of the torrent that sucked away houses, cars and trees. The two decided to climb up to a small Shinto shrine on the hillside, said builder Teiichi Fujiwara, 63, Koshi's son and Hoshi's son-in-law.

Even then, the water came up to their waists. Only by grabbing onto a tree and holding tight were they able to survive. Then as the water receded, they walked two hours to a standing structure. Fujiwara searched the area for days, finally finding them Tuesday at City Hall.

"There's no way they'd have survived if they lived down there," Fujiwara said, pointing toward the beach. "You go 10 miles in every direction and there are no people left."

Farther down the valley, 10 fire, rescue and hazardous material trucks were parked at the end of the only road into the community. A body lay in a pine casket under a blue tarp. The small number of bodies found and large number of missing have led authorities to conclude most were washed out to sea.

The roads, largely intact between twisted guardrails, suggest how the community was laid out, an ordered world of winding paths and oversized drainage canals meant to catch the runoff from steep mountains.

The few houses that survived show the violence the region endured, with refrigerators shot through walls like bullets. In their midst, massive construction cranes lay overturned like kicked toys.

A few hundred yards up the valley road, three dog teams from Swiss Rescue, a search group sponsored by the government of Switzerland, worked an area of debris on the north side of the valley.

Japan waived its quarantine requirement for animals to let the dogs in.

Each dog works just 20 minutes while the two others rest. "Smelling so intensely is hard work," said group leader Linda Hornisbergen. These canine units are trained to unearth the living. "There's no hope really of finding someone alive here," she said. "But the Japanese want us to look for the dead."

On Tuesday, the team found three spots amid the rubble they believe may harbor bodies, and pointed them out to government officials. It is also important to determine which areas are clear of bodies so authorities can go ahead with cleanup and reconstruction.

The dogs can detect bodies 60 to 100 feet away depending on wind, soil and moisture conditions. The mud is dense and wet after the tsunami and Tuesday's rain, hardly ideal conditions for the dogs' noses.

Unlike the tangled debris seen at many other shore communities, Minamisanriku has a bleak emptiness, a silence that's replaced homes, schools and children playing.

Heading up the plateau around a bend in the road, however, the houses are suddenly pristine, their flowerpots untouched, polished late-model cars in the driveway. But the residents have fled.

"We've gone to Aramachi," said a paper sign on one house, listing the names of family members who have headed to a town far inland. The sight of the devastation below was apparently just too much.

Photos: Scenes of earthquake destruction

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