Thursday, March 24, 2011

Japan earthquake: Mothers at Sendai school receive the dead bodies of their children

Bracing herself for the worst Miyuki Fukuda steps gingerly out into the muddy wasteland that used to be her children's school.

It is two weeks since the tsunami struck but only now is Ookawa Elementary School giving up most of its dead.

Of its 108 pupils, 77 were buried, along with 10 teachers, when water surged over the top of their two-storey building and dumped tonnes of earth on the playground.

That was where the entire group was standing, having followed their well practised response to an earthquake, filing outside and waiting for the danger to pass.

There was a hill 50 yards away, where they would have been safe from a tsunami, but the teachers didn't think a wave could reach two miles inland.

So instead, for 45 minutes, they stood patiently as a 30ft wall of water was rushing up the nearby Kitakamigawa river, and across the rice paddies towards them.

The school's clocks now stand still, frozen at the moment the tsunami hit.

For many days after the disaster the school, perched on the river's scenic south bank under a pine forested hillside near the city of Ishinomaki, was hard to reach. A 50-metre section of the bridge across the river snapped and was washed half a mile upstream. Other roads were washed away.

Only now has heavy digging equipment arrived to help parents in their desperate search.

Mrs Fukuda, 43, reached the scene by wading for miles through water on foot.

Her daughter Risa, 12, and son Masaki, nine, were among the pupils.

When she got there only the skeleton of the semicircular concrete school building was still standing. Nearby, around 100 homes had been washed clean away.

She has roamed the area ever since with other families, looking under tree trunks, smashed cars and blocks of concrete for their missing children.

The body of her daughter was among the first found, but her son remains lost.

"Risa played the piano and she had just started learning English. She loved it," Mrs Fukuda said in tears. "Masaki was in all the school plays. He had a beautiful face. "I told my children if there was ever a tsunami they should go into the hills. But when I got here, they were not there."

According to parents, one teacher, Jinji Endo, who had previous experience of tsunamis, took a single child up into the hills to safety. But the other teachers told the rest of the pupils to stay in the playground.

"If they had all listened to Mr Endo and climbed up the hill they would all have been safe," said Mrs Fukuda. "I think about that a lot. But the teachers died as well so there is no point being angry. I cannot criticise them, what would be the point? No one knew the wave could come this far." Kazutoshi Ogata, 44, and his wife Emi, 38, found the body of their son Ryusei, 10, but there was no sign of their seven-year-old daughter Karen.

Mr Ogata said: "This place looks like a missile or a bomb has hit it. When I first got here I just dug with my hands.

"I found my son's satchel and his calligraphy brushes and that's all I have now. After we found his body I got permission to bury him because the man who does cremations has been killed as well.

"The saddest thing now is waiting for my daughter, but I will wait here and keep looking, as long as it takes."

His wife said: "I wish they had all gone to higher ground. But I think the teachers tried their best to protect the children. Nobody could have expected what happened. It's not their fault."

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