Video: Disaster in the heart of Sendai

Image: An SOS sign is written on the ground
Junichi Sasaki  /  AP
An SOS sign is written on the ground of Shizugawa High School in Minamisanrikucho in Miyagi Prefecture on Sunday two days after the powerful earthquake and tsunami hit the area.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 3/14/2011 12:46:30 AM ET 2011-03-14T04:46:30

Rescue workers used chain saws and hand picks Monday to dig out bodies in Japan's devastated coastal towns, as Asia's richest nation faced a growing humanitarian, nuclear and economic crisis in the aftermath of a massive earthquake and tsunami.

The death toll surged when some 2,000 bodies were found on two shores in Miyagi Prefecture, the Kyodo News Agency reported on Monday.

About 1,000 bodies were found coming onshore on the Ojika Penninsula, and other 1,000 were spotted in the town of Minamisanriku, where the local government had been unable to locate about 10,000 people, or over half the population, Kyodo said.

Millions of people spent a third night without water, food or heating in near-freezing temperatures along the devastated northeastern coast. Also, the containment building of a second nuclear reactor exploded because of hydrogen buildup while the stock market plunged over the likelihood of huge losses by Japanese industries including big names such as Toyota and Honda.

A reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant exploded, Monday . Japan's top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, said the reactor's inner containment vessel was intact, but said people within a 12-mile radius of the facility were ordered inside following the blast.

Edano said Tokyo Electric Power held off on imposing rolling blackouts Monday, but called for all to try to limit electricity use.

He said that if necessary, the utility was prepared to go ahead with the power rationing, which was supposed to begin Monday in eight prefectures and cities, including parts of Tokyo. The decision to hold off on the cuts reflected an understanding of the profound inconveniences many would experience.

Many regional train lines were suspended or operating on a limited schedule Monday to help reduce the power load.

The planned blackouts of about three hours each were meant to help make up for a severe shortfall after key nuclear plants were left inoperable due to Friday's earthquake and tsunami.

Near-freezing temperatures compounded the misery of survivors along hundreds of miles of the northeastern coast battered by the tsunami that smashed inland with breathtaking fury. Rescuers pulled bodies from mud-covered jumbles of wrecked houses, shattered tree trunks, twisted cars and tangled power lines while survivors examined the ruined remains.

Disaster at a glance

Before Monday's discovery, police had confirmed 1,597 deaths — including 200 people whose bodies were found Sunday along the coast — and more than 1,400 missing in Friday's disasters. Another 1,900 were injured.

A police chief told disaster relief officials more than 10,000 people were killed, police spokesman Go Sugawara told The Associated Press. That was an estimate — until Monday, only 400 people have been confirmed dead in Miyagi, which has a population of 2.3 million.

Millions without water, food
Some 1.9 million households were without electricity, but many people were without even more basic necessities. At least 1.4 million households had gone without water since the quake struck, and food aid was slow in reaching many areas.

For Japan, one of the world's leading economies with ultramodern infrastructure, the disasters plunged ordinary life into nearly unimaginable deprivation.

"People are surviving on little food and water. Things are simply not coming," said Hajime Sato, a government official in Iwate prefecture, one of the three hardest hit.

"We have repeatedly asked the government to help us, but the government is overwhelmed by the scale of damage and enormous demand for food and water," he told The Associated Press.

"We are only getting around just 10 percent of what we have requested. But we are patient because everyone in the quake-hit areas is suffering."

He said local authorities were also running out of body bags and coffins.

"We have requested funeral homes across the nation to send us many body bags and coffins. But we simply don't have enough. We just did not expect such a thing to happen. It's just overwhelming."

Sato said local authorities may ask foreign funeral homes to send supplies.

Hajime Watanabe, a 38-year-old construction worker, said he walked two hours Sunday to find a convenience store that was open and waited in line to buy dried ramen noodles. He also got in line in Sendai for gas, along with hundreds of other motorists. By Monday morning the station still was not open.

"I'm giving up hope," he said. An emergency worker in white helmet came over and told him if the station opens at all, the gas may be allocated for emergency teams and essential government workers.

He and his family are living in a shelter, fearful that one of the aftershocks that continue to strike will destroy their apartment building.

"I never imagined we would be in such a situation," Watanabe said. "I had a good life before. Now we have nothing."

While the government doubled the number of soldiers deployed in the aid effort to 100,000 and sent 120,000 blankets, 120,000 bottles of water and 29,000 gallons of gasoline plus food to the affected areas, Prime Minister Naoto Kan said electricity would take days to restore. In the meantime, he said, electricity would be rationed.

In the town of Iwaki, there was no electricity, stores were closed and residents left as food and fuel supplies dwindled. Local police took in about 90 people and gave them blankets and rice balls, but there was no sign of government or military aid trucks.

"This is Japan's most severe crisis since the war ended 65 years ago," Kan told reporters, "The earthquake, tsunami and the nuclear incident have been the biggest crisis Japan has encountered in the 65 years since the end of World War Two," a grim-faced Prime Minister Naoto Kan told a news conference on Sunday.

"We're under scrutiny on whether we, the Japanese people, can overcome this crisis."

Video: Expert: Evacuation zone may not be adequate

Economic impact
Friday's quake and tsunami, which swallowed towns and tossed large ships like game-board pieces, caused tens of billions of dollars in losses, according to preliminary estimates. And the first day of stock trading since the disasters opening underlined the challenges Japan's already fragile economy will have in bouncing back.

The benchmark Nikkei 225 stock average shed 494 points, or 4.8 percent, to 9,760.45 just after the market opened Monday. Japan's central bank quickly responded by initially injecting 7 trillion yen (US$85.5 billion) into money markets and later increased the figure to 15 trillion (US$183.8 billion).

Boston-based catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated that insured property losses from the quake will range between 1.2 trillion to 2.8 trillion yen — about $15 billion to $35 billion in U.S. dollars.

In a rare piece of good news, the Defense Ministry said a military vessel on Sunday rescued a 60-year-old man floating off the coast of Fukushima on the roof of his house after he and his wife were swept away in the tsunami. He was in good condition. His wife did not survive.

A young man described what ran through his mind before he escaped in a separate rescue. "I thought to myself, ah, this is how I will die," Tatsuro Ishikawa, his face bruised and cut, told NHK as he sat in striped hospital pajamas.

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Japanese officials raised their estimate Sunday of the quake's magnitude to 9.0, a notch above the U.S. Geological Survey's reading of 8.9. Either way, it was the strongest quake ever recorded in Japan, which lies on a seismically active arc. A volcano on the southern island of Kyushu — hundreds of miles (kilometers) from the quake' epicenter — also resumed spewing ash and rock Sunday after a couple of quiet weeks, Japan's weather agency said.

Dozens of countries have offered assistance. Two U.S. aircraft carrier groups were off Japan's coast and ready to provide assistance. Helicopters were flying from one of the carriers, the USS Ronald Reagan, delivering food and water in Miyagi.

Two other U.S. rescue teams of 72 personnel each and rescue dogs arrived Sunday, as did a five-dog team from Singapore.

Still, large areas of the countryside remained surrounded by water and unreachable. Fuel stations were closed, though, at some, cars waited in lines hundreds of vehicles long.

The United States and a several countries in Europe urged their citizens to avoid travel to Japan. France took the added step of suggesting people leave Tokyo in case radiation reached the city.

Community after community traced the vast extent of the devastation.

Towns wiped out
In the town of Minamisanrikucho, 10,000 people — nearly two-thirds of the population — have not been heard from since the tsunami wiped it out, a government spokesman said. NHK showed only a couple concrete structures still standing, and the bottom three floors of those buildings gutted. One of the few standing was a hospital, and a worker told NHK that hospital staff rescued about a third of the patients in the facility.

At a large refinery on the outskirts of the hard-hit port city of Sendai, 100-foot (30-meter) -high bright orange flames rose in the air, spitting out dark plumes of smoke. The facility has been burning since Friday. The fire's roar could be heard from afar. Smoke burned the eyes and throat, and a gaseous stench hung in the air.

In Sendai, as night fell Sunday and temperatures dropped to freezing, people who had slept in underpasses or offices the past two nights gathered for warmth in community centers, schools and City Hall.

Slideshow: Devastation in Japan after quake

In the small town of Tagajo, also near Sendai, dazed residents roamed streets cluttered with smashed cars, broken homes and twisted metal.

Residents said the water surged in and quickly rose higher than the first floor of buildings. At Sengen General Hospital, the staff worked feverishly to haul bedridden patients up the stairs one at a time. With the halls now dark, those who can leave have gone to the local community center.

"There is still no water or power, and we've got some very sick people in here," said hospital official Ikuro Matsumoto.

Police cars drove slowly through the town and warned residents through loudspeakers to seek higher ground, but most simply stood by and watched them pass.

In Sendai, firefighters with wooden picks dug through a devastated neighborhood. One of them yelled: "A corpse." Inside a house, he had found the body of a gray-haired woman under a blanket.

'Get out of there now!'
A few minutes later, the firefighters spotted another — that of a man in black fleece jacket and pants, crumpled in a partial fetal position at the bottom of a wooden stairwell. From outside, while the top of the house seemed almost untouched, the first floor where the body was had been inundated. A minivan lay embedded in one outer wall, which had been ripped away, pulverized beside a mangled bicycle.

The man's neighbor, 24-year-old Ayumi Osuga, dug through the remains of her own house, her white mittens covered by dark mud.

Osuga said she had been practicing origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into figures, with her three children when the quake stuck. She recalled her husband's shouted warning from outside: "'GET OUT OF THERE NOW!'"

She gathered her children — aged 2 to 6 — and fled in her car to higher ground with her husband. They spent the night in a hilltop home belonging to her husband's family about 12 miles away.

"My family, my children. We are lucky to be alive," she said.

"I have come to realize what is important in life," Osuga said, nervously flicking ashes from a cigarette onto the rubble at her feet as a giant column of black smoke billowed in the distance.

In Rikusentakata, a port city of over 20,000 virtually wiped out by the tsunami, Etsuko Koyama escaped the water rushing through the third floor of her home but lost her grip on her daughter's hand and has not found her.

"I haven't given up hope yet," Koyama told public broadcaster NHK, wiping tears from her eyes. "I saved myself, but I couldn't save my daughter."

To the south, in Miyagi prefecture, or state, the police chief told a gathering of disaster relief officials that his estimate for deaths was more than 10,000, police spokesman Go Sugawara told The Associated Press. Miyagi has a population of 2.3 million and is one of the three prefectures hardest hit in Friday's disaster. Fewer than 400 people have officially been confirmed as dead in Miyagi.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributd to this report.

Interactive: Japan before and after the disaster

These aerial photos show locations in Japan before and after the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami that struck March 11. Use the slider below the images to reveal the changes in the landscape.

Explainer: The 10 deadliest earthquakes in recorded history

  • A look at the worst earthquakes in recorded history, in loss of human life. (The March 11, 2011, earthquake and tsumani that affected eastern Japan is not included because the fatalities caused, about 15,000, are fewer than those resulting from the temblors listed below.) Sources: United States Geological Survey, Encyclopedia Britannica

  • 1: Shensi, China, Jan. 23, 1556

    Magnitude about 8, about 830,000 deaths.

    This earthquake occurred in the Shaanxi province (formerly Shensi), China, about 50 miles east-northeast of Xi'an, the capital of Shaanxi. More than 830,000 people are estimated to have been killed. Damage extended as far away as about 270 miles northeast of the epicenter, with reports as far as Liuyang in Hunan, more than 500 miles away. Geological effects reported with this earthquake included ground fissures, uplift, subsidence, liquefaction and landslides. Most towns in the damage area reported city walls collapsed, most to all houses collapsed and many of the towns reported ground fissures with water gushing out.

  • 2: Tangshan, China, July 27, 1976

    Chinese Earthquake
    Keystone  /  Getty Images
    1976: Workers start rebuilding work following earthquake damage in the Chinese city of Tangshan, 100 miles east of Pekin, with a wrecked train carriage behind them. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
    Magnitude 7.5. Official casualty figure is 255,000 deaths. Estimated death toll as high as 655,000.

    Damage extended as far as Beijing. This is probably the greatest death toll from an earthquake in the last four centuries, and the second greatest in recorded history.

  • 3: Aleppo, Syria, Aug. 9, 1138

    Magnitude not known, about 230,000 deaths.

    Contemporary accounts said the walls of Syria’s second-largest city crumbled and rocks cascaded into the streets. Aleppo’s citadel collapsed, killing hundreds of residents. Although Aleppo was the largest community affected by the earthquake, it likely did not suffer the worst of the damage. European Crusaders had constructed a citadel at nearby Harim, which was leveled by the quake. A Muslim fort at Al-Atarib was destroyed as well, and several smaller towns and manned forts were reduced to rubble. The quake was said to have been felt as far away as Damascus, about 220 miles to the south. The Aleppo earthquake was the first of several occurring between 1138 and 1139 that devastated areas in northern Syria and western Turkey.

  • 4: Sumatra, Indonesia, Dec. 26, 2004

    Aerial images show the extent of the devastation in Meulaboh
    Getty Images  /  Getty Images
    MEULABOH, INDONESIA - DECEMBER 29: In this handout photo taken from a print via the Indonesian Air Force, the scene of devastation in Meulaboh, the town closest to the Sunday's earthquake epicentre, is pictured from the air on December 29, 2004, Meulaboh, Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. The western coastal town in Aceh Province, only 60 kilometres north-east of the epicentre, has been the hardest hit by sunday's underwater earthquake in the Indian Ocean. Officials expected to find at least 10,000 killed which would amount to a quarter of Meulaboh's population. Three-quarters of Sumatra's western coast was destroyed and some towns were totally wiped out after the tsunamis that followed the earthquake. (Photo by Indonesian Air Force via Getty Images)

    Magnitude 9.1, 227,898 deaths.

    This was the third largest earthquake in the world since 1900 and the largest since the 1964 Prince William Sound, Alaska temblor. In total, 227,898 people were killed or were missing and presumed dead and about 1.7 million people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 14 countries in South Asia and East Africa. (In January 2005, the death toll was 286,000. In April 2005, Indonesia reduced its estimate for the number missing by over 50,000.)

  • 5: Haiti, Jan 12, 2010

    Haitians walk through collapsed building
    Jean-philippe Ksiazek  /  AFP/Getty Images
    Haitians walk through collapsed buildings near the iron market in Port-au-Prince on January 31, 2010. Quake-hit Haiti will need at least a decade of painstaking reconstruction, aid chiefs and donor nations warned, as homeless, scarred survivors struggled today to rebuild their lives. AFP PHOTO / JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK (Photo credit should read JEAN-PHILIPPE KSIAZEK/AFP/Getty Images)

    Magnitude 7.0. According to official estimates, 222,570 people killed.

    According to official estimates, 300,000 were also injured, 1.3 million displaced, 97,294 houses destroyed and 188,383 damaged in the Port-au-Prince area and in much of southern Haiti. This includes at least 4 people killed by a local tsunami in the Petit Paradis area near Leogane. Tsunami waves were also reported at Jacmel, Les Cayes, Petit Goave, Leogane, Luly and Anse a Galets.

  • 6: Damghan, Iran, Dec. 22, 856

    Magnitude not known, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake struck a 200-mile stretch of northeast Iran, with the epicenter directly below the city of Demghan, which was at that point the capital city. Most of the city was destroyed as well as the neighboring areas. Approximately 200,000 people were killed.

  • 7: Haiyuan, Ningxia , China, Dec. 16, 1920

    7.8 magnitude, about 200,000 deaths.

    This earthquake brought total destruction to the Lijunbu-Haiyuan-Ganyanchi area. Over 73,000 people were killed in Haiyuan County. A landslide buried the village of Sujiahe in Xiji County. More than 30,000 people were killed in Guyuan County. Nearly all the houses collapsed in the cities of Longde and Huining. About 125 miles of surface faulting was seen from Lijunbu through Ganyanchi to Jingtai. There were large numbers of landslides and ground cracks throughout the epicentral area. Some rivers were dammed, others changed course.

  • 8: Ardabil, Iran, March. 23, 893

    Magnitude not known, about 150,000 deaths

    The memories of the massive Damghan earthquake (see above) had barely faded when only 37 years later, Iran was again hit by a huge earthquake. This time it cost 150,000 lives and destroyed the largest city in the northwestern section of the country. The area was again hit by a fatal earthquake in 1997.

  • 9: Kanto, Japan, Sept. 1, 1923

    Kanto Damage
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images
    1923: High-angle view of earthquake and fire damage on Hongokucho Street and the Kanda District, taken from the Yamaguchi Bank building after the Kanto earthquake, Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
    7.9 magnitude, 142,800 deaths.

    This earthquake brought extreme destruction in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, both from the temblor and subsequent firestorms, which burned about 381,000 of the more than 694,000 houses that were partially or completely destroyed. Although often known as the Great Tokyo Earthquake (or the Great Tokyo Fire), the damage was most severe in Yokohama. Nearly 6 feet of permanent uplift was observed on the north shore of Sagami Bay and horizontal displacements of as much as 15 feet were measured on the Boso Peninsula.

  • 10: Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, Oct. 5, 1948

    7.3 magnitude, 110,000 deaths.

    This quake brought extreme damage in Ashgabat (Ashkhabad) and nearby villages, where almost all the brick buildings collapsed, concrete structures were heavily damaged and freight trains were derailed. Damage and casualties also occurred in the Darreh Gaz area in neighboring Iran. Surface rupture was observed both northwest and southeast of Ashgabat. Many sources list the casualty total at 10,000, but a news release from the newly independent government on Dec. 9, 1988, advised that the correct death toll was 110,000. (Turkmenistan had been part of the Soviet Union, which tended to downplay the death tolls from man-made and natural disasters.)

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