On March 11, 2011 I was in Tokyo when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck – magnitude 9 – devastating a country and people I love deeply. I volunteered to deploy into the disaster area with colleagues to help in whatever way we could. What I experienced changed my life.
Over the next few weeks, and ahead of the fourth anniversary, I thought I’d share some of that experience with you through a series of journal entries and emails I sent at the time.
Understanding the End
As we drive into the once thriving town of Shizugawa, earthquake / tsunami / nuclear disaster day six, I am struck by an apparent lack of emergency response workers on the ground. The arrival of our Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) Taskforce appears to have the effect of doubling the numbers. It will not be until when we are standing in the landscape of devastation that I understand the sheer size of the site means that teams from the Police, the Fire Department, and the Self Defence Force (SDF) are spread so thinly that they are almost invisible. We are all dwarfed by the scale of the disaster. Throughout the day I will be plagued with a sense of working in isolation, of being trapped in our own small patch of destruction. Beyond that, and once evac. routes to high ground have been identified and marked, though, there is little time to think beyond the next car, the next building, the next pile of debris.
The deeper we drive into the ‘town’, using the few roads that have been cleared, the more it feels as though I have walked onto the set of an end of days film. Unlike the site that the USAR had been working on the previous day, in which the tsunami had pushed the entire town to the farthest corners of the valley and left it there in an impenetrable pile of rubble, Shizugawa has been swept into the valley and then aggressively pulled back out to sea. The tsunami was relentless in its destruction and carried with it an unimaginable force. In the coming days I will hear countless stories of how it came in surges, growing in size and strength.
As I step out of our vehicle, my mind struggles to process the topsy turvy signs that this was once a place of life and great activity. A fishing community that started the day early, that lived by the clock of the seasons and carved a respectful life into the side of hills, flanked by the water that was the source of their livelihood, their diet and ultimately, their destruction. A small wooden rice bowl rests perfectly preserved on the mud, a child’s bicycle with a small yellow basket is tangled in fishing line, a comic book lays tattered on the foundations of a building, a handbag rests against some rubble, fishing nets and buoys are wrapped around the front of a department store. But it is the absolute silence that renders me breathless. A town devoid of all it’s inhabitants.
There will be many moments of complete disbelief. Standing on the roof of the hospital, the only high point of safety, surveying the devastation from above. The train carriage perched at the edge of the ocean, far from where it’s tracks once were. Reading the tsunami evacuation refuge sign on an apartment block that was entirely consumed by water. Watching the USAR team clear the rubble from the local post office, including gas tanks, cars and a lounge. Staring up at a ball of debris the size of a three story apartment block, wrapped firmly in the hold of fishing nets, tangled steel and wire.
After negotiating with the SDF as to which area we will clear, the USAR begin their work. My task, and that of my two colleagues, is to provide assistance with interpreting, and logistics should we require external support from beyond the site, which by the end of the day we do by way of a medevac for a USAR team member injured while clearing a building. An incident that will also leave us with only two in the field, while our third colleague goes with the medivac as an interpreter.
The scale of the devastation has resulted in an early assessment that this will likely only be a body recovery exercise. They expect to find no one alive. Nonetheless the USAR are methodical in their clearing of buildings, up-turned cars, and in the deployment of the search and rescue dogs. The dogs get no hits. No one is surprised, but we are all disappointed.
As I walk with the USAR across the thick silt, through debris and past the ruins of buildings, I can’t help but worry that beneath me there are potentially bodies that we will never recover. The earthquake caused the earth to sink 4 metres and yet the silt has levelled it back to the foundations of pre-tsunami buildings. I try very hard not to think about this, while trying to walk across this resting place with respect.
We find the first body at the back of a building that had already been cleared once. An old man tucked under a red blanket. When I am called to interpret between the USAR team who made the discovery and the SDF, I imagine that we will stop some distance away from the body, have a short discussion and then I will return to other duties. In my head I am practising a respectful word for ‘corpse’, and a phrase I hope will acknowledge this terrible loss. We are five metres from the body when we stop and the words float out of my mouth, rusty and inadequate. I kick at the ground where a child’s green dinosaur toy is half buried, as I dredge up words they never taught me on language training. I find myself wishing my Japanese was fluent enough so that I could show more respect to the dead.
It’s unlikely that anyone will ever identify the old man we find. So many are gone from this village that there may be no one left to acknowledge him. He may not even be from this village. His white hair tangles like silver rope behind his head as the USAR lift him with great care onto the blue sheeting he will be wrapped in until he can be collected. I notice how his nose is crooked, his eyes closed, and how he seems almost at peace. I have a great sense of his spirit having already moved on – this is not the man, this is the body. I don’t know this to be true, I only know what I feel, and perhaps what I need to believe.
And so it goes on, until the USAR team have recovered three bodies. Only. The feeling of defeat is palpable, as is the frustration. Without the right equipment, without more time, this is an impossible task. But the state of the roads in, the sheer scale and with every minute counting, we work with what we have.
Just when it seems like there will never be any good news stories, I am approached by a member of the USAR seeking to advise the SDF that we will be assisting in clearing a family home. Three family members have driven up from Tokyo and, along with their grandmother and grandfather who lived in the house, are attempting to search through the debris themselves. It’s an incredibly dangerous situation. The house, or what is left of it, looks like an open-fronted dollhouse. Inside is an entire tree, a car, more than 15 large water buoys, and various belongings from other properties.
The USAR are quite simply amazing. Their focus immediately turns to assisting the family, and they begin the gruelling process of searching for loved ones. A family member, a woman about my age, tells me that she thinks the body of her younger sister is still inside. It is clear from the words she uses, that she is not expecting anyone to have survived. Nonetheless, they need the closure that only the return of remains can provide, and to know that they have done all that they possibly could to bring dignity in death to their loved ones. She tells me how her grandmother and grandfather, who are in their 90’s, had run to the hospital next door and made it to the roof just as the tsunami hit. In the process they had been separated from their daughter and son-in-law.
It is clear that the extent of debris will make it impossible to complete the task before the light fades. The USAR send in the search and rescue dogs, but have no hits. As they search and clear rubble from the house, they bring out objects that may be of significance to the family. Amongst them is the graduation certificate from 30 years prior belonging to the woman to whom I have been speaking. She is overwhelmed, the family laughing as they huddle around something that seems so insignificant but links them all to those that had lived here, to the memories they had created as a family. How is it possible that such a thing can survive?
Lifting her eyes to the house, she points at the fabrics trailing in the wind, caught up on the window frames on the second floor, and tells me that her grandmother stored all the family kimonos on the second floor, including the family wedding kimono. The fabrics we can see are the obis that belonged to those kimonos. They flutter now, almost at half mast, and we stand quietly watching them for some time. Mesmerised by the movement.
One of the USAR team approaches me to ask about some fabrics they have found upstairs in an old chest of drawers, that seems largely intact. The chest is too heavy to move, but they can bring the drawers down one at a time, if they are of value. I translate and the woman covers her mouth in disbelief. These are the family kimonos. When they are in her hands, she and her family touch them in awe, running their fingers over the seams, the textures; they become still-frames in my mind, caught up in their own memories. Some time later she pulls me aside to show me a photo album that one of the USAR members has managed to retrieve. Unbelievably intact, she opens it to show a picture of her entire family, including her sister. She is beautiful. She is wearing the wedding kimono.
With light fading and the site becoming unsafe to continue to work on, I spend our last few moments interpreting for, and speaking with the family, while the USAR recall all 77 officers from various search locations in their grid and dig in. Having no expectations doesn’t make it any easier and it is heart-wrenching when we finally have to pull up stumps and leave the site. The family come over to express their thanks and even though the USAR team are exhausted, drenched in sweat, they assure me this was the highlight, this is what they came to do. I’ve never met such big hearts. It takes my breath away. I am humbled by both their efforts and the family’s gratitude, as they bow deeply, expressing their thanks and sharing their emotions in a way Japanese people rarely do.
As I climb into my sleeping bag, on an icy floor and temps of -17 degrees, the ground rolling underneath me in constant aftershocks, I am struggling with the knowledge that we have been recalled. It feels like quitting before the job is done, and I know that this is what the USAR are feeling. The threat of the nuclear reactor however, removes any choice they or I might have had. Tomorrow we are all going home.