Bodies found in villages mostly of old folk who couldn't outrun tsunami
NATORI (MIYAGI): Septuagenarian Hirosato Wako stared at the ruins of her small fishing hamlet: skeletons of shattered buildings, twisted lengths of corrugated steel, corpses with their hands twisted into claws. Only once before had she seen anything like it: World War II.
'I lived through the Sendai air raids,' Ms Wako, 75, said, referring to the Allied bombings of the north-east's largest city. 'But this is much worse.'
For the elderly who live in the villages along Japan's north-eastern coast, it is a return to a past of privation that their children have never known.
As in so much of the Japanese countryside, young people have largely fled, looking for work in the city. The elderly who remained are facing devastation and possible radiation contamination, a challenge equal only to the task this generation faced when its defeated, despairing nation had to rebuild from the rubble of World War II.
In this hamlet of Yuriage, the search for survivors was turning into a search for bodies. And most of those bodies were old - too old to have outrun the tsunami.
Mr Yuta Saga, 21, was picking up broken cups after the earthquake when he heard sirens and screams of 'tsunami!'. He grabbed his mother by the arm and ran to the junior high school, the tallest building around.
Traffic snarled the streets as panicked drivers crashed into one another. When they reached the school, mother and son found the stairs to the roof clogged with older people who appeared unable to muster the strength to climb them. Some were just sitting or lying on the steps. As the bottom floor filled with fleeing residents, the wave hit.
At first, the doors held. Then water began to pour through the seams and flow into the room. In a panic to reach the roof, younger residents began pushing and yelling, 'Hurry!' and 'Out of the way!' They climbed over those who were not moving or elbowed them aside.
'I couldn't believe it,' Mr Saga said. 'They were even shoving old people out of the way. The old people couldn't save themselves.'
Then the doors burst open, and the water rushed in. It was quickly waist level. Mr Saga saw one older woman, without the strength or will to stand, sitting in water that rose to her nose. He said he rushed behind her, grabbed her under the arms and hoisted her up the stairs.
Another person on the stairs grabbed her and lifted her up to another person. The men formed a human chain, lifting the elderly and some children to the top.
'I saw the ugly side of people, and then I saw the good side,' he said. 'Some people thought only of themselves. Others stopped to help.'
One woman handed him her infant.
'Please, at least save the baby!' she pleaded as water rose above his chest.
Mr Saga said he grabbed the baby and ran up the stairs. Many of those still at the foot of the stairs were washed away.
He joined about 200 people on the second floor of the building. The baby's mother rushed upstairs, and he put the baby into her arms.
From the windows, they watched uprooted homes and cars flowing by. People did not speak, he said. They just cried and moaned, a collective 'Ahhhh!' as they watched the destruction unfold.
He saw one of his classmates, whose parents had gone back home to get something as the wave came and did not make it to the school. His friend sat on the floor, in tears.
Ms Hisako Tanno, 50, was working at a warehouse when the quake struck. She rushed home to get her 77-year-old father. As she parked in front of her home, she heard screams. She looked down the street to see a 'mountain of garbage' moving down the street at her. It was the wave.
Her neighbours called to her from their home, and she ran up to their second floor. Then she remembered she had left her father.
She could see her house from the window. When the wave hit, it smashed the sliding doors. Then, to her horror, she saw her father swept outside. The water was by now the height of a one-storey building. She saw him grab the ironwork on her home's second-storey balcony and hold on.
'He was trying to pull himself up, but he has a bad leg,' she said.
As the water surged, her father was able to somehow hoist himself over the metal railing and onto the balcony. There he held on for dear life.
'I didn't know he had it in him,' she said. 'He wanted so badly to live that he found that last burst of strength.'
After the earthquake, Mr Jun Kikuchi, 33, who owns a local taxi company, drove to the homes of a half-dozen residents aged 70 or older to ask if he could take them to higher ground. They refused, saying that there was no tsunami alert, so they would stay home.
The next morning, he found out that the homes of all six of the older residents were washed away.
'The elderly can't take care of themselves in a disaster like this,' he said. 'They didn't stand a chance.'
NEW YORK TIMES