Video: Survivors in the aftermath: 'I don’t recognize anything'

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    >>> now to the enormous human drama in the aftermath of this disaster, the death and destruction, the shortage of basic supplies in the quake so zone like food, water, gasoline. for some perspective, japan is about 10% smaller than california. a large percentage of japan felt the effects of the quake, but the tsunami damage was worst in the region to the north of tokyo in sendai . nbc's lester holt is there tonight heading up our coverage. lester, good evening.

    >> reporter: brian, good evening. you used the term a moment ago hyperprepared nation, and you get the sense that if it was just the quake, japan would have quickly gotten back on its feet, but the tsunami seemed to knock it over the edge , over the brink action and now over the last 24 hours , we've seen the sea giving back the dead, those who were cruelly swept out to sea last friday. the destruction extends as far as the eye can see. an almost incomprehensible landscape. emergency workers aided by 100,000 japanese troops pulling out more bodies today. there are few survivors left to find. japan hasn't seen anything like this since world war ii . friday's tsunami inundated communities shattered just minutes before by the most powerful earthquake japan has ever seen. now three days later, more than a thousand bodies have washed ashore. many more are expected. nbc's ian williams saw the devastation firsthand.

    >> it's hard to imagine that until friday this wasteland was a busy residential neighborhood. they have no idea how many bodies are buried here or was swept away with so much of the town.

    >> reporter: for the living a nightmare. millions are without clean water , electricity, adequate first aid or shelter in the mid-march cold. somehow, the japanese sense of order prevails, but the trauma in people's faces is plain to see. hospitals and shelters are completely overwhelmed. driving out of tokyo tonight at the height of rush hour, the traffic was amazingly light. we soon discovered why. all the gas stations are closed. at this highway rest stop, all we've seen are convoys of emergency vehicles , all of them heading north. many roads are impassable. train service in many parts of the country is nonexistent. four trains full of passengers are still missing, swallowed up by the tsunami. japan 's $5 trillion economy, the third largest in the world, has been staggered by the disaster. insurance losses are estimated at $35 billion and counting. and there is no price on the loss of loved ones. one woman picked through her devastated neighborhood looking for her mother. she notices a photo of one of her neighbors. it's too much for her. it's all flattened, she says. without the houses, i don't even recognize anything. there have been rare moments of relief, even joy. a mother reunited with her young daughter. and aid is now pouring in from all corners of the globe, desperately needed, as japan struggles to recover from a blow unlike any it has ever seen. sendai is known as the city of a thousand generations. brian, i think it's fair to say for a long time many generations of families will be sharing the story of the earthquake and tsunami of 2011 .

    >> lester holt on the ground in sendai tonight. lester, thanks.

Image: Elderly man evacuated
Koji Sasahara  /  AP
An elderly man is evacuated from Tagajo, Japan, on Sunday.
updated 3/14/2011 6:31:17 PM ET 2011-03-14T22:31:17

Masashi Imai wrapped his arms around the wheelchair that held his disabled wife and clung on with all his strength.

Their home lurched and swayed as the ground fell away. The power went out. Imai switched on his wire radio and heard the warning.

Then came the deluge.

Imai picked up his wife's limp body, cradled it and carried her to the second floor. "Father! Father!" screamed a girl from a neighboring house. Imai's wife, who has mental problems after two strokes, began to laugh.

Disaster at a glance

Many of Imai's neighbors had nowhere to run, because their houses had only one story. Eventually, the girl's voice went silent.

In the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, the line between life and death proved very thin — just one story high, in Imai's case, or little more than a bus length away from a wall of water. Even along the killing zone of the northeastern coast, some buildings and entire neighborhoods were spared while others were obliterated. The death toll was feared to be higher than 10,000.

'Get out of there now!'
On that fateful Friday, Ayumi Osuga was practicing origami with her three children, aged 2 to 6, in their single-story home in the coastal city of Sendai. At 2:46 p.m., the ground started to shake. Cups and plates fell from cupboards and shattered, but the damage seemed minor.

Then Osuga's husband called. "Get out of there now!" he yelled.

Chilled by the brusque warning, the 24-year-old factory worker quickly gathered her children into the car and fled to a hilltop home belonging to her husband's family 12 miles (20 kilometers) away. She managed to beat waves moving at the speed of a jumbo jet.

Safe on higher ground, Osuga's family spent the night listening to the radio. The darkness was lit only by candles, and the cold was bitter; some snow still lay on the hills around.

On Sunday, she returned with her husband and relatives to a home that was no more. Among the only things that had survived were three large packs of diapers. Tears in her eyes, Osuga stuffed the diapers, along with ruined bank documents and family photos, into backpacks.

Osuga was hoping the neighborhood had been spared any deaths. But just then, a team of firefighters with wooden picks appeared. One of them yelled out: "a corpse." Inside a house about 15 yards (meters) away, they found the body of a gray-haired woman lying under a blanket.

Video: Death toll rises amid Japan disaster (on this page)

A few minutes later, the firefighters spotted another: It was Osuga's neighbor. Wearing a black fleece and black pants, he lay crumpled in a partial fetal position, hugging some cardboard debris, at the bottom of a muddy wooden stairwell inside his home.

The top of the house appeared almost mockingly untouched — with just two cracks in the white wall, and a small satellite dish still dotting the blue tiled roof.

Osuga knows she is lucky to be alive. "My family, my children ... I have come to realize what is important in life," she said.

Bad time to visit
As Osuga was playing with her children, Hisae Watanabe was examining watches on the second floor of the Loft department store in Sendai. She had come to Sendai for the day from Fukushima, one of hardest-hit cities, on business.

When the earthquake hit, everyone fell down. The glass in the watch cases shattered. The panic rose in Watanabe. Large pipes in the department store's ceiling began to come loose, swaying and banging into each other.

The staff was calm, used to earthquakes. They told everyone to run outside despite the danger of falling debris.

Watanabe ran out onto a walkway over the road. For some reason, there was a giant statue of the letter "P," poised at a funny angle. Everyone took pictures with their mobile phone cameras.

Then the walkway started swaying badly, and they ran down into the street. People screamed in the chaos. Watanabe spent the rest of the day trying to find shelter, and ended up passing a cold, hungry night at a railway station. She was waiting to return home when the trains started running again.

As she talked, the petite, 30-year-old woman sat alone on a cardboard sheet in Sendai's city hall, crowded with refugees who have nowhere else to go. She appeared haggard and shell-shocked.

'It was terrifying'
Like Osuga, construction worker Yukou Ito was lucky enough to reach higher ground — barely.

Ito was at work about 40 minutes from his home near the harbor in Hachinohe when the earthquake struck. He returned in time to see a wall of rising water, which funneled cars and boats down the street toward him.

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"It was terrifying. ... It looked like a foreign movie where everyone's running from something scary," he said.

Ito grabbed a credit card and jumped into his compact car. Through his rearview mirror, he could see the huge tsunami crashing down the street just behind him. A fishing boat was right behind him.

Now, several inches of water cover the floor at the entrance of his apartment, along with his ruined refrigerator, his microwave and a cabinet. A pile of muddy clothes soak in a large plastic bucket filled with water.

"I have to start over from square one," he says, lighting a cigarette and looking at the men in hard hats dragging debris and twisted metal out of buildings. Huge fishing boats were turned on their sides in the road like children's toys. "I've got absolutely nothing left."

Still overcome by emotion, Imai paces back and forth along the Sunaoshi river that runs through his small hometown of Tagajo, his knee-high wading boots scraping along the ground. Other dazed survivors roam the devastated streets.

As Imai remembers his older neighbors who likely died in their houses, he breaks into tears.

"This river has given us so much, but on Friday it brought disaster," said the 56-year-old, a former hotel worker who quit his job to care for his wife of 33 years. "Even now, when I sit or close my eyes, I still feel like it is shaking."

As he talked, the river's current switched directions and suddenly dropped several feet — signs of another possible tsunami. A few minutes later came a small wave about a foot, carrying oddly shaped debris.

It spun and dipped as it slowly floated by.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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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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