It began on Sept. 8, a week after Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down into the sea about 280 miles northwest of this little coastal city.
The call came to police from a fisherman who reported that his trout net, a half mile offshore, had snagged what seemed to be a human body. When Norio Nakamura, a local policeman, investigated, his initial hunch was of some barbaric murder. The body was cut off below the navel. The left hand and part of the face were missing. Then Nakamura remembered the KAL jet.
Later, an autopsy showed it to be the body of a child, 6 to 11 years old, its chest and head pierced with fragments of metal and glass.
Ever since that day, the rough gray sea has brought forth new bits of tragedy. Yesterday it was a human ear, found by searchers walking the coast in a downpour. Sunday it was another body, this one of a chestnut-haired Caucasian woman. So far, portions of three bodies and six smaller parts have been found in a massive hunt that involves more than 600 searchers, as well as planes, fishing boats and today two heavy trawlers equipped with dragnets.
The pathetic debris of KAL 007 also surfaces on the bleak coast that this week is ripped with gale-force winds and heavy squalls--a piece of the jet's tail, a photo of a Korean woman and child, a life vest lettered in Korean, a Taiwanese businessman's calling card.
Sometimes the flotsam provides traces of the victim's life. The identity card of a Canadian woman, Mary Jane Hendrie, washed up this week and friends in Tokyo suddenly remembered a bright, merry 17-year-old exchange student who had lived with them while learning Japanese nine years ago.
She had been returning to Japan to work for a British company. Fumihiko Tashiro, with whose family Hendrie had lived in Tokyo, had looked forward to the reunion.
"Sept. 13 was to be her 26th birthday and if she were alive we would be celebrating her birthday together," Tashiro said. "I am so sorry that she died."
The jet was downed off the southern coast of the Soviet Union's Sakhalin Island and Russian search crews presumably have scooped up some of the remains. But the strong Soya current sweeps southeast along the northern coast of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, and into the sea of Okhotsk, bringing with it the remains of passengers and plane.
After the jet was struck by a Soviet missile, Japanese authorities say, it descended slowly for more than 10 minutes until, at last, it dived suddenly with great impact into the waters. Authorities speculate that the violent final crash caused the dismemberment of bodies that have surfaced here.
Abashiri is a city of 45,000 people best known as the site of a prison, and local dramas are rare. But this week its police, firemen and white collar workers from city hall donned raincoats and rubber boots and fanned out along the lonely beaches, poking at rubbish with thin iron staves.
Noboru Shiratori, 39, a city construction worker, complained of the mud and rain but explained that it was nothing extraordinary for him and his colleagues to give their time to the search.
"When I think of the feelings of their families, it is quite a natural thing," he said.
For Japanese, the recovery of bodies of the departed is a special duty to be accomplished at all costs. Today, 38 years after the end of World War II, families of slain Japanese soldiers still comb far-off Asian jungles for bones.
Yet the macabre discoveries take their toll on some here. Akikatsu Oota, a 42-year-old logger, remembers fishing on a lake near the coast Sunday. The fishing was bad so he wandered closer to the shore where he spotted the partial body of a woman.
"At first I thought it was such an awful thing, Oota recalls, "but then I thought that it was good if it were one of the plane victims because then it would be handed over to a family which would be very happy. But at home I felt blue and I drank lots of beer and I was sad all night."
Sixty-five miles up the coast from Abashiri, the police chief of Mombetsu, Takeshi Ito, found himself making an unusual speech at the morning lineup today when he had to explain carefully to his men the purpose of the day's search. They should look with sincerity and reverence, he told them, because the object was to find the remains of human beings.
"As you know," he added, "the bodies are not in perfect condition, but I strongly remind you that you are joining a search for human bodies."
Hokkaido authorities in the provincial capital of Sapporo are puzzled over how to handle the remains, when and if they are identified. Normally, the bodies of Japanese would be cremated and the ashes given to relatives. But with the remains of persons of so many different nationalities they are not sure how to proceed. None has been positively identified yet.
Government agencies involved in the vast search expect the next few days to turn up more bodies and wreckage. A fleet of trawlers is being mobilized with instructions to use dragnets below the water's surface at 20 locations, and the U.S. Navy tug Narragansett began probing 600- to 900-foot depths off the coast for the airliner's black box containing in-flight recordings.
On the coast near here, groups of mourners have come in the rain and wind to pay their respects. A dozen Buddhist monks held a quiet service, then threw flowers into the choppy waves. On a high cliff overlooking the sea, Masa Sakurada said few tourists come to his souvenir shop in such bad weather but for the past few days he has noticed strangers coming to pray silently while facing the sea.
Near the site where Oota found the woman's body someone has built a small memorial of seaweed, wild lillies and sake bottles.
Some residents find consolation in the fact that the bodies are washing up here, where they can be recovered by friendly hands and perhaps handed over to relatives.
"We couldn't believe it at first because the place where the jet crashed is so far from here," said Yoshikazu Nishida, 32, a taxi driver. "But the fact that they came to our coast and not to the Soviet coast may be the wish of gods to send them back to their own families."