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Rescue Teams Reach Tsunami-Stricken Town

  • Henry Ridgwell

Earthquake and tsunami aftermath in Ofunato, Japan, March 16, 2011

Earthquake and tsunami aftermath in Ofunato, Japan, March 16, 2011

The estimated death toll from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is now well over 10,000. Rescue teams are searching through the wreckage in Ofunato, Japan - one of the communities worst hit by last Friday’s tsunami.

The road to Ofunato is a journey through a landscape of apocalyptic destruction. It has taken five days for rescue teams to clear a way through the wreckage to the town. There are surreal sights at every turn. A tugboat weighing thousands of tons tossed into someone’s yard. Cars suspended from second floors. And the belongings of the people who once called this place home, strewn among the debris.

Masayo Kamagae, his wife and their daughter have returned here for the first time since the tsunami struck to search the family home. Their only finds are a rice bowl and their late grandfather’s yukata robe (traditional Japanese garment).

He said “I feel like it’s a nightmare. It’s just unbelievable. But at least our family is alive.”

Kamagae then showed us a stone embedded in the ground, marking the point where the last big tsunami reached in 1960. “When the tsunami alert sounded last Friday, many people living beyond this point assumed they were safe,” he said. “That’s why many died.”

For many of those who survived the tsunami here in Ofunato, this is the first chance they’ve had to come back to the town to see what’s happened.

Ambulances, fire engines and army trucks roar past the wreckage as the town’s homeless residents look on.

Hideaki Iida has been back to the family home to see the damage. There is nothing left. But that’s not his greatest loss. "My family is dead,” he said. “My grandparents, my brother, my mother. All dead. I don’t know what I’ll do now. It’s too soon.”

Japanese and international rescue teams scoured the wreckage throughout the day. They pulled out several bodies, but didn’t find anyone alive.

A U.S. rescue team from Los Angeles is among those who’ve flown in to help the Japanese.

As team members disinfected their equipment at the end of the day, team spokesman David Stone described the conditions they’re facing. “We were in Haiti last year. We just got back from New Zealand - gosh not even two weeks ago. And here, this is worse. The scope and magnitude of destruction is unbelievable. Unless you’re actually here you just can’t believe it, the pictures don’t do it justice," he said.

Winter has returned with a vengeance to northern Japan, making life difficult for the rescuers, and even harder for those made homeless.

Ofunato is just one small town on the Pacific shoreline. There are many more communities suffering the same fate on a vast swathe of coast that has been devastated by the forces of nature.