For survivors, it was a 'scene from hell'

Japan tsunami: The wall of frothing brown water tore through town of more than 17,000

Paradise lost: A doll covered with mud lies on the ground after the March 11 tsunami and earthquake in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture, on Wednesday. AFP

He and other survivors described a wall of frothing brown water that tore through this town of more than 17,000 so fast that few could escape. Town officials say as many as 10,000 people may have been swallowed by the sea. Even many of those who reached higher ground were not spared by waves that survivors said reached more than 60 feet high.

“It was a scene from hell,” Sato, 59, said, his eyes red with tears. “It was beyond anything that we could have imagined.”

Much of the destruction unleashed by the tsunami that struck Japan’s northeastern coast on Friday was captured on television, for all to see. But the most lethal devastation took place in remote fishing communities like this one, where residents said steep mountains and deep inlets amplified the size of the crushing wave, unrecorded by television news helicopters or Internet videos.

The only record now is the accounts of the survivors, and as word of what happened here has begun to seep out, even disaster-struck Japan has found itself aghast.

In this town, and others nearby, the tsunami created scenes of almost apocalyptic destruction. Traumatised survivors have been left to ponder that the living and the dead were separated by the mere caprice of a ravenous, fast-moving wall of water, and sometimes split-second decisions.

Yasumasa Miyakawa, 70, who owned a laundry on the first floor of his home, said he and his wife ran up a hill when they heard the tsunami warnings. Then Miyakawa went back down, because he forgot to turn off his iron and was afraid it would catch fire.

When he stepped back outside his shop, he heard those on the hill above him yelling: “Run!” A wave was barreling at him, about a half-mile away, in the bay, he said. He jumped in his car, and by the time he could turn the key and put it in gear, the wave was almost upon him. He said he sped out of town chased by the wave, rising in his rearview mirror.

“It was like one of the ridiculous scenes from an action movie, except it was real,” said Miyakawa, his hands quivering. “I was going 70 kmph and the wave was gaining on me.”

Cries for help

When he returned the next morning, he found his home reduced to its foundations, and heard faint cries for help. He followed them to a nearby apartment building, where he found a woman shivering and wet in the March cold and took her to a shelter. “The wave killed many,” he said, “but it spared a few.”

Among them were the town’s children, whose schools were located safely on a hilltop.
In fact, the children said they did not even notice the wave. Ryusei Tsugawara, a 13-year-old middle school student, said he figured something was amiss only when school ended and teachers would not let the children go home. Instead, the children were kept at school until the next day, when his parents and those of some of the other children began to claim them.

Some parents never showed, and the unlucky children have been placed in care of friends and relatives, town officials said. “The town is gone, and I’m scared to stay here,” Ryusei said.

A decision to gather on the roof of the town hall proved fateful for many. Sato, the mayor, said he and other town employees rushed to watch the approaching wave from the roof, which at three stories high and a half-mile from the shore seemed safely out of harm’s way.

Instead, Sato said, the water roared up to the building and swept over its roof, pinning him against a steel railing, with his head just above water. He said that was the only reason he survived. Of the 30 people on the roof, only 10 survived by clinging onto the railing or an antenna.

After the waters receded,  Sato and the other shivering survivors on the roof collected the splintered boards and Styrofoam to build a fire. The next morning, they used some fishing rope to climb down. About 7,500 survivors have gathered in shelters on hilltops, where they remain without electricity, heat or running water, waiting for help from the outside.

Town officials say about 10,000 residents are missing, though they are not sure exactly how many because all the town’s records were destroyed by the wave. One thousand bodies have been found so far, according to local news reports, which town officials refused to confirm or deny. Many more are believed to be inside the debris, or buried under the layer of brown mud that the tsunami left.

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