ONAGAWA, Japan — Armed not with rifles but long poles to poke for bodies, soldiers in camouflage fatigues on Tuesday completed another small mission in the Japanese military’s most gruesome battle since World War II. They hoisted the remains of an elderly woman into the back of a white Suzuki pickup.
Entombed for four days in a heap of debris, all that remains of her home, the woman was one of 5,700 people who, according to local residents, disappeared in this once placid, picturesque seaside town Friday afternoon. That was when a tsunami thundered in across the harbor, rose to nearly 100 feet and pulverized the community.
The discovery Tuesday of more bodies by the Japan Self-Defense Force added evidence to support a conclusion that survivors here still desperately hope is wrong — that most of those who vanished Friday are dead. That would mean that more than half of Onagawa’s population of fishermen, cannery workers, tour guides, bureaucrats, Pachinko parlor staff and others perished.
Yoshio Kimura, a 74-year-old widower who survived by making it up a hill near his home, hasn’t heard word of his neighbors since Friday, not the fisherman who lived on one side of him or the pharmacist and his staff who ran a shop on the other. He said he thinks he saw the pharmacist running away but isn’t sure. “I saw lots of people running. I hope they’re okay, but I haven’t seen any of them since,” he said.
Unlike Kimura, the neighbors haven’t returned to Lane 398 to dig through their flattened wooden homes in search of cherished mementos. Nor have they turned up at a sports hall where Kimura and many other survivors now shelter, living on increasingly meager rations of instant noodles and bony fish.
Onagawa’s numbing misery began with Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake out at sea but was then amplified by its topography: Steep hills on either side of town funneled the tsunami into the main business and residential district, pushing the wave to more than three times the height seen elsewhere. It arrived, recalled Kimura, with a rage-filled roar that “sounded like nothing else I’ve ever heard.”
But at least it spared a nearby nuclear power plant, which has had some trouble but avoided the mayhem at a six-reactor complex down the coast.
To reclaim the world stolen by this gigantic wave, Kimura wrote his name on a wooden stake and stuck it in the ground to mark a pile of rubble as his home. Mumbling to himself, he smacked at the ruins with a cooking knife, hoping to conjure up at least some small physical connection with his previous life. All he’s retrieved is a small jar of mushrooms.
In all, soldiers have found more than 100 corpses in Onagawa — 30 Sunday, 50 Monday and 24 by mid-afternoon Tuesday. Each body gets wrapped in a dirty blanket, tagged on the ankle with a “corpse ticket” by a local official and then driven to a makeshift morgue. The smell of flesh is masked by the stronger stench of rotting fish, which, left behind by the tsunami, carpet the devastation. Fishing nets, once the lifeline of the economy, dangle in knotted skeins from pine trees on surrounding hills.
Many of those who died here may never be found: They were swept to sea when the tsunami, having completed its rampage inland, surged back into the ocean. Hundreds of corpses have washed ashore and been collected from the coastline of Miyagi prefecture, where Onagawa and other hard-hit places, including Sendai, a city of about 1 million people, are located. But many will never return.
Hopes that survivors might still be found in the cold, waterlogged wreckage have disappeared. “There is no chance,” said Hideki Doi, a local government official in charge of what began as a rescue team but is now charged with recording deaths. It snowed Monday and Tuesday. The only calm lies on the water of Onagawa’s bay, the very sea that caused the havoc.
As of Tuesday night, the official death toll in Japan stood at a little over 3,300, with more than 6,700 unaccounted for, the National Police Agency said. But these figures seem to widely understate the true toll. In Onagawa alone, according to Doi, more than 5,000 are missing. A hospital official and residents said 5,700 are missing from Onagawa.
The wall of water that barreled through Onagawa was so tall it tossed cars on top of now teetering three-story buildings and flooded the first floor of the hospital, built on a hill above the town.
As the tsunami approached, Norizaku Sato, a hospital administrator, grabbed a bullhorn and screamed at staff to move patients to the fourth floor. They all made it, just as water pounded down the hospital’s main corridor, past the emergency room, into the admissions area and then out through a large plate-glass window at the other end. Sato watched his town’s destruction from the hospital roof. Once the deafening din of the tsunami passed, “the air was full of the sound of breaking buildings.”
The hospital has no water, no heating and only a small generator for electricity. A smashed car sits in the entrance, and stretchers lie scattered on a mud-caked carpet amid sodden medical reports and shattered medicine bottles.
The hospital’s 83 patients, most of them elderly, survived. All were there before the tsunami hit. The military airlifted a handful of injured residents to other towns for treatment, but, Sato said, the destruction was so catastrophic that people either got to high ground and lived or they died.
The first big building to be hit was Onagawa’s marine exhibition hall on the edge of the harbor. It remains standing. A big sign dangles above its mangled metal door: “Images of the Sea and the Mysterious World.”
Down the street from Kimura, Mitsubi Noguchi pointed to a pile of matted garbage and splintered wood. “This is my home,” he said. With his wife, Miki, he spent hours Tuesday digging and poking to see what belonging might be salvaged. Their haul: a birth certificate, a single sodden business card, a car registration, a framed certificate showing that his wife finished a makeup course at Chanson Academy and a 1,000 yen bank note, worth about $12.
Mitsubi escaped death Friday by racing up a hill next to his home. His wife was in a nearby town, Ishinomaki, which also was hit, but not nearly as badly as here.
Like Kimura, the couple hasn’t seen any neighbors since Friday. “Not a single one,” the husband said. “We are very, very shocked. But we have each other. We can start all over again.”