After tsunami, one village vanishes

The tsunami that devastated Japan's coast rolled in through a tree-lined ocean cove and obliterated nearly everything in its path in this village of about 250 people and 70 or so houses.

Now, three days later, Saito is a moonscape of death and debris, a hellish glimpse into the phenomenal destruction caused by the killer wave that followed Japan's most powerful earthquake on record and one of the five strongest on Earth in the past 110 years.

In Saito and nearby areas, there is no electricity, no running water. There are no generators humming. The night is pitch black. The buildings still standing are closed. No stores are open. Everything has stopped.

"There is nothing left," villager Toshio Abe told The Associated Press on Monday as firefighters in bright orange and yellow emergency suits hacked through the vast wasteland with pickaxes, searching not for survivors but for the dead. Abe said at least 40 of Saito's people were dead or unaccounted for.

Abe said he was gardening Friday afternoon when he felt the earth shake under his feet. Tsunami sirens blared and a loudspeaker announcement warned people to get to higher ground.

The 70-year-old frantically climbed a hill behind his home about two kilometers, or roughly a mile, from the beach. From his safe vantage point, he watched as, 20 or 30 minutes later, the giant wave arrived with a thunderous roar.

It crashed through what appeared to be a two-story-high sea gate, then careened through the valley, following a two-lane road. He saw it rise up, over and through a bridge and smash into scores of houses, ripping most apart instantly. Other houses, he said, were pulled from their foundations and slammed together.

Hills on both sides channeled the wave another kilometer or so inland, depositing the broken wooden innards of Saito's homes along the road.

"I never thought a tsunami would come this far inland," Abe said. "I thought we were safe."

Abe pointed to a battered concrete foundation amid the flattened landscape. It was his own house. "I will rebuild it," he said, "but not here."

Today, everything in Saito is spoken about in the past tense.
"That was city hall," said 48-year-old construction worker Takao Oyama, gesturing toward a two-story white building that stood alone near the beach, leaning at an angle into a sheet of mud and sand.

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