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With floodwaters finally gone, a Japan town searches for tsunami victims

Days after the quake and tsunami, a farm town finally begins a grisly task in a once-flooded rice field. 'These aren't faceless victims; I know most of these people,' one searcher says.

March 21, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • A recovery team carries a body found in a flooded rice field.
A recovery team carries a body found in a flooded rice field. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Nakanosawa, Japan — They covered the body with a child's blanket, a fluffy blue-green cloak decorated with white lilies. Beneath the cloth was a man, maybe in his 40s, missing his right arm from the elbow, a final insult to one of the countless victims of this agricultural town's tsunami nightmare.

On a warm late-winter morning, four recovery workers bent low, slowly lifting the corpse in silent deference, before splashing through the muck and ooze of the rural rice field toward the road.

On Sunday, the ritual was repeated again and again, at least a dozen times, as teams — many in hazmat gowns — finally had an opportunity to reach the bodies of friends and neighbors that had languished in a sea of mud and wreckage since the earthquake and tsunami struck March 11.

On this day the floodwaters at last receded, giving Nakanosawa a chance to collect its own.

"Before today, this field was an ocean," said volunteer officer Hideaki Suzuki, gesturing with a hand sheathed in a blue surgical glove.

Nakanosawa, 220 miles north of Tokyo in isolated Iwate prefecture, is one of many coastal towns in northeastern Japan that have been decimated by nature's mayhem. A few have been swept out to sea — people, houses, cars and all.

Others, like this farm community of 23,000, are reeling from a one-two earthquake-tsunami punch from which many here wonder whether they will ever recover. The ranks of the missing in Nakanosawa number 1,800. Authorities have recovered 700 bodies, but have been hobbled by a lack of resources, including gas and electricity, as well as by floodwaters that had stubbornly refused to recede.

The weather and water finally relented. Days ago, the field, nearly three miles inland, was covered with a film of snow, but on Sunday the sun shone through, bringing a hint of spring that belied a grisly task.

"These aren't faceless victims; I know most of these people," Suzuki said as he directed a line of traffic that included passing drivers who covered their mouths in shock and teenage gawkers taking pictures on their cellphone cameras. "Just a few moments ago, they carried out a volunteer fireman. It's hard to watch. But it's worse when you know them."

The day's salvage effort focused on the rice field along Route 45, a onetime thoroughfare for families on their way to a nearby beach, now transformed into a grim avenue of death.

The field, several miles long, at places a mile wide, sits littered with detritus: parts of upside-down houses, trucks and cars carried here from who knows where. Here and there lay snapped-off tree trunks, shards of wood, blankets, car tires, dolls, an ice chest, a wooden ornamental sake bucket, a refrigerator door and a book called "Setting Free the Bears."

The adjacent country road, mostly cleared of wreckage, weaved between mountains of debris at some places 40 feet high, from which the tail ends of cars protruded like Christmas tree ornaments. There was a yellow crane, toppled on its side, that was too big to move, so motorists just swerved around it.

At first light Sunday, the search teams fanned out into the field, picking their way along paths marked by muddy footprints, crossing small inlets of standing water over bridges made from wooden doors and window sills.

Workers said little as they went about their task. A parade of men in white suits walked in formation, sweating in the sun. At one point, the first in line sighed and dropped a heavy portable generator as the others passed in silence.

Amid a sickening smell of decay, the crews found so many bodies that they ran out of space to store them. At one point they stopped carrying their finds to the roadside, instead marking them before moving on to the next. Submerged for days, many of the corpses had simply fallen apart, forcing workers to collect what limbs they could find.

Suzuki watched from the roadside, shaking his head in disbelief. The 27-year-old truck driver and his wife and 1-year-old son were safe, but he couldn't just sit in front of the TV gawking at the nonstop images of disaster. He volunteered.

"Who knows where these bodies came from?" said Suzuki, in hip boots, a blue kimono, white belt and helmet. "There was nothing to stop the water. Now this place is a disaster zone."

Nearby, a dozen workers congregated on the road as their counterparts carried out two bodies at once, both covered by the same blue tarp, the men supporting their load solemnly, as though part of a funeral procession.

"I don't think they'll ever replant this field," Suzuki said. "They'll let it sit fallow. They'll be afraid to find more bodies."

In this part of Japan, it seems as though nearly everyone has lost a loved one. At a nearby communications center, Futoshi Toba, mayor of Rikuzentakata, looked wan with shock as he consulted with workers.

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