Months After Earthquake and Evacuation, Residents Lament Not Reaching Survivors; 'I Was So Sorry I Couldn't Come Get Them
By YUKA HAYASHI
FUKUSHIMA CITY, Japan—Six hours after giant waves ravaged a seaside community near here on March 11, Kimihisa Takano looked down on a debris-strewn river bank and thought he heard faint sounds coming from under the rubble, and then moans.
With no rescue tools or floodlight to search in the dark, the volunteer firefighter headed back to the town hall disaster headquarters to call for reinforcements. Before leaving, he called out, convinced that there was a survivor: "Hang in there. We will come get you." He never made it back to the scene.
As trouble at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-power plant flared up overnight, government officials were forced to issue an evacuation order early the next morning, and rescue workers like Mr. Takano—who recalled the events in a recent interview—soon had to shift gears. Instead of resuming the search for survivors at daybreak, the volunteer firefighters from Namie, a town as close as five kilometers (about three miles) from the plant, had to drive block to block to warn people to evacuate.
Others stood on street corners to control traffic, or made sure their own families got out safely. By midday, Saturday March 12, the volunteers themselves were in a rush to evacuate from the rapidly escalating radiation release.
Rescue workers and residents in towns within 10 kilometers of the nuclear compound say they were hampered by manpower shortages and other problems as the earthquake rolled into a nuclear disaster and upended the rescue effort. Other towns along the Pacific coast continued at full strength during the three days after the quake, finding many survivors. But those closest to the plant found themselves suddenly caught in a no-go zone, and remain haunted by memories of a rescue effort cut short.
"I have felt tormented that we couldn't save the lives that we could have saved," Tamotsu Baba, mayor of Namie, said in an interview. "It felt like I had left part of me behind." Most of the town center was emptied by early afternoon of March 12.
Dogged by his nagging thoughts, the mayor said, he stopped shaving for months. He finally gave up the beard when the town had a memorial service on Oct. 16 for its 184 residents who died or disappeared after the tsunami.
Many Namie residents continue to agonize over the possibility that they may have deserted fellow citizens who were awaiting rescue. Most of the tsunami victims in Namie were killed in Ukedo, a neighborhood formed along the river, and a bustling fishing port of the same name.
Shigeaki Izumida was among the people involved in rescue operations by the Ukedo river during the night of March 11. The town assemblyman said there could well have been survivors in the area, given that it was where some successful rescues were made late that night. Mr. Izumida himself helped to pull out a survivor from the river, and a family of three were rescued Friday night from a house washed up on the river bank. He learned recently that several bodies were later found under the bridge near where he and Mr. Takano, the volunteer firefighter, stood that night. "It really was too bad we couldn't continue," he said.
Early in the morning of March 12, Daisuke Suzuki, a volunteer firefighter and owner of a sake brewery in Ukedo, tried to go back to his neighborhood, hoping he might find survivors. He was forced to turn back as the nuclear evacuation became imminent. "Along the way, I met several people who said they had heard voices. If we had been able to continue the search even just in the morning of March 12, the result would have been different."
Very few residents of Namie doubt the evacuation was necessary. As they learned later, some parts of their town had suffered some of the worst contamination in the area.
But the mayor has complained to Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, that the evacuation order did delay recovery of bodies of tsunami victims. By the time a search team was allowed to enter Namie in mid-April, the bodies had decayed so much that DNA tests had to be done to identify them. "We couldn't even give dignity to the remains of our dead. I blame Tokyo Electric for that," Mr. Baba said.
Yoshikazu Nagai, a Tepco spokesman, said the company "apologizes deeply for the tremendous worries and trouble" caused by the accident, but declined to comment specifically about the search operations. The company says no deaths have been caused by the release of radiation.
While volunteer firefighter efforts were curtailed by midday March 12, professional rescue efforts did continue into that night. "We looked carefully for signs of life. We saved every survivor we could find," said Kazuo Abe, a commander of the fire department for the Futaba area that includes Namie and seven other towns surrounding the plant. It's unclear that, even if a full rescue effort had been allowed on Saturday, anybody trapped under wet debris in freezing temperatures could have survived the night.
Still, Mr. Abe acknowledged that his department had to curtail rescue forces and assign a large number of its 100-plus firefighters to assist evacuation efforts. "We could have conducted more thorough and swift search operations if we hadn't had to deal with the nuclear accident. That's undeniable," he said. Mr. Abe himself is a resident of Ukedo and lost his home and a number of neighbors.
Rescue logs show 11 people were rescued in Namie on March 11, with the final rescue at around 8 p.m. on the Ukedo River near where Mr. Takano, a 50-year-old sign maker, stood about an hour later. Nobody was rescued in Namie on March 12 or subsequent days.
In some nearby areas outside the evacuation zone, the rescue efforts found more survivors through the weekend and early into the following week. In the Soma area just north of Namie, the number rescued alive was 53 on March 11, 52 on March 12, 40 on March 13 and five on March 14. In some towns outside the nuclear evacuation zone, however, the numbers of survivors found dropped off sharply after the first day.
That suggests that, even if rescuers in Namie had been allowed to continue their efforts unhindered by the nuclear accident, they may not have been able to save anybody else.
Mr. Takano has remained anguished. For months, living separated from his family in evacuation housing dozens of miles away, hefaced was anguished by the memory of the night when he stood on the Ukedo river bank. Every evening, at evacuation housing dozens of miles from home, the 50-year-old store-sign maker the direction of Namie and pressed his hands together in prayer. , who has been living alone in Fukushima City, away from his wife and three young children who had evacuated to a faraway town
"I kept thinking about the people who were left to die in cold water," he said. "I said to them over and over I was so sorry I couldn't come get them."