Weeks after fleeing from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Minoru Yoshida received a call from his employer offering to extend his contract.
The nuclear power plant that he had helped to build four decades ago was in crisis. And in the 30 days since the disaster started, Yoshida's long-time affection for the plant crumbled away, replaced by anger directed at Tokyo Electric Power Co., the plant operator.
"The Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant was my life," he said.
Workers like Yoshida who were at the nuclear plant when the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake struck have seen their lives turned upside down. Loyalties to their TEPCO-affiliated companies, a common trait among Japan's work force, have disappeared, much like the assurances of safety they repeatedly heard over the years.
Yoshida started working for a TEPCO affiliate more than 40 years ago at age 21.
At the time, it was a lucrative job, Yoshida, now 63, said.
He earned 1,100 yen ($13) a day while an average local construction worker was paid only 600 yen.
Yoshida, the oldest of five children, jumped at the chance to work at the nuclear power plant. The income of his rice-farming parents was not enough to support the family.
He worked in the construction of the Fukushima No. 1 plant from the very beginning, hauling concrete in a wheelbarrow and installing lighting equipment in the plant's central control room.
He came to think that the plant was as important as his own life.
On March 11, Yoshida was connecting a power cable on the first floor of the No. 4 reactor building, which was undergoing a regular inspection.
The reactor, which workers nicknamed "okama" (kiln), was about 10 meters away on the other side of a concrete wall.
When Yoshida reached for a key from a colleague to open a protective cover of a power source, the shaking started and twisting metal made a screeching sound.
Yoshida leaned against a concrete pillar.
"I know the quake will be over soon. If this tough building should be destroyed, then that's the end," one worker said.
But the shaking became fiercer.
"We had better leave this place as soon as possible," another worker said.
The dimmer emergency lighting switched on, and dust from the ceiling clouded the room.
Yoshida and his colleagues rushed to the exit about 100 meters away. About 200 people were in the building when the earthquake hit, and 20 to 30 of them had lined up to check their radiation levels.
Frustrated people shouted: "A tsunami is coming! Hurry up!"
Many workers fled in their work clothes without washing the radiation from their faces or hands.
It took Yoshida 10 minutes to get out of the building and 15 minutes to walk to the office on higher ground about 1 kilometer away.
He retrieved his driver's license and cellphone in a room that was littered with the contents of drawers and lockers, and headed home in his car.
By that time, the tsunami had already reached the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant and his home.
Hideaki Kumagawa, a 21-year-old resident of Namie, Fukushima Prefecture, and an employee of a TEPCO subcontractor, was inspecting air conditioning at the No. 4 reactor building of the Fukushima No. 2 nuclear power plant when the magnitude-9.0 quake struck.
Some lights shut off and a thick cloud of dust was kicked up.
"Escape now," said a senior employee. Kumagawa and others ran to higher ground in 10 minutes as the plant's loudspeakers repeated: "Please evacuate. Please evacuate."
He also heard the roaring sound of the tsunami below.
Kumagawa jumped in his car to go home, about 18 km away, but it took him about two hours, compared with the usual 5 minutes, just to leave the plant's premises because of the long line of workers' cars and the cracked roads.
At home, his grandmother Yoshiwo, 80, and his sister, Eri, 26, were watching TV, which was warning residents about the approaching tsunami.
As they saw their neighbors packing their belongings and driving away, Eri said to Yoshiwo, "Grandma, we will be late."
But Yoshiwo did not want to leave.
Kumagawa's mother, Junko, 54, came home from work around 3:30 p.m. and immediately asked: "Why haven't you (two) left?
They went to the second-floor balcony and saw the approaching waves that looked like black clouds. "Grandma, come upstairs," Eri shouted.
The water gushed into the house as Eri, Yoshiwo and Junko were climbing the stairs. Eri watched helplessly as Yoshiwo disappeared in the water.
Eri and Junko grabbed the railing, but they, too, were swept away about 500 meters from the house.
They were rescued by local volunteer firefighters that night. Yoshiwo is still missing.
The family's suffering increased long after the water receded.
Kumagawa quit his job after his employer told him his wages would be reduced. Junko also lost her job, and the pachinko parlor where Eri worked showed no signs it would ever reopen.
Kumagawa's father, Hidenari, was employed at a construction company that does work for TEPCO. But he cannot go to work because of the high radiation levels at the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
All four family members lost their jobs, leaving them with no means to pay off their 16-million-yen housing loan.
Hidenari now has trouble holding in his emotions.
"I have been grateful to TEPCO," he said. "Many people in this community have worked for and have been supported by the nuclear power plant and related jobs.
"But why can't anyone control what human beings built? If there were no nuclear power plants, I would be able to look for the body of my mother."
Minoru Yoshida arrived home in Okuma on the evening of March 11. His wife had already fled. The place where his home stood looked like a lake.
He went to the town hall for shelter, but it was within the 10-km radius evacuation zone from the plant.
On March 12, he moved to Tamura, about 40 km from the plant. And on April 4, under the town's policy, he was relocated to an inn in Aizu-Wakamatsu, about 100 km from the plant.
After TEPCO expressed its intention to decommission the No. 1 to 4 reactors, Yoshida knew his life as a nuclear power plant worker was over.
"Why couldn't anyone act against the accident before it was too late?" he said. "It is truly regrettable."
(This article was compiled from reports by Yoichiro Kodera, Kengo Ichihara and Ken Shiohara.)
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