OFUNATO, Iwate Prefecture-- From time to time, Yoshinori Murakami puts down his shovel to retrieve a photo album or stray picture from the detritus covering the roads.
The 33-year-old volunteer community firefighter clearing streets said any memento, no matter how muddied or damaged, could mean a world of difference to residents who lost so much after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake.
His personal mission also helps to keep his mind off the deaths of his wife, Taeko, 30, and his youngest daughter, Nozomi, 1, - a tragedy he has yet to come to terms with.
"I feel that for now, it is better for me to be on my feet and doing something," Murakami said.
Volunteer firefighters like Murakami in northeastern Japan are working through their losses to clear rubble and restore some sense of normalcy in their communities.
In many rural communities where fire departments are not readily available, volunteer fire brigades, many of whose members hold regular jobs, act as the first line of defense in disasters.
According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, Iwate Prefecture had 23,420 fire brigade volunteers as of April 2010, close to 12 times the 1,944 fire department officials in the prefecture.
Following the March 11 quake, volunteer firefighters directed evacuees to shelters, rescued stranded survivors, administered life-saving techniques and put out fires.
Six members of the No. 3 division of the Otsuchi Fire Brigade No. 1 branch in Otsuchi, Iwate Prefecture, risked their lives against the oncoming tsunami to shut eight passageway gates in a 6.4-meter-tall, 1-kilometer-long seawall.
Although the tsunami exceeded all expectations and destroyed a large part of the wall, they closed all the 5-meter-wide steel gates in a little over 10 minutes and escaped to higher ground.
"It was like playing tag against a tsunami," recalled Kunihiko Nakamura, 46, a member of the brigade division.
Norimitsu Ueno, the 55-year-old team leader, and another member then rushed back to help evacuate residents.
All six volunteer firefighters of the unit, along with another who joined later, lost their homes in the disaster. Their family members are living in evacuation shelters.
About a dozen members of another fire brigade in the community had also tried to shut gates at a seawall. Several of their bodies have since been found.
Despite the deaths of their comrades, the seven members of the No. 3 division have stuck together to help their community.
They have been staying at the office of Nakamura's trucking business in preparation for any event.
Nakamura's parents are still missing.
"Devotion," said Hajime Iwama, the 55-year-old deputy leader of the brigade that lost members when asked why the volunteers risked their lives. "I think it all comes down to that."
In Ofunato, Murakami says he remains committed to "help reconstruct the city where I was born and brought up."
Yet a mixture of guilt after the disaster also led Murakami to put on the happi coat of his volunteer fire brigade. That was on March 17, the day after he cremated the bodies of Taeko and Nozomi.
When the quake struck, Murakami was visiting his in-laws about a 20-minute drive from his home where Taeko and Nozomi remained.
After taking three times the usual time to drive home after the shaking stopped and the tsunami water receded, Murakami found his home in a shambles. The windows were broken and a huge pile of debris covered the entire main room.
Assuming that Taeko and Nozomi had fled to higher ground, Murakami began a three-day frantic search at evacuation shelters.
After finding no leads, Murakami returned to his home on March 14.
Amid the debris in the living room, he noticed a foot. When he removed the dirt and foliage that had piled up, he found the body of his wife and dead daughter curled up in her arms.
Nozomi's face had a peaceful look, as if she were napping in her mother's arms, he said.
Overwhelmed with emotion, Murakami could only apologize for failing to find the two earlier.
He retrieved a photo album from the wreckage and cried, regretting that he could not find his digital camera that held pictures of a recent family trip to Sendai.
The only fortunate thing that came out of the disaster was that Murakami's older daughter, Yu, 4, was unhurt. She had been at the day-care center when the disaster struck.
But since that day, Murakami has been unable to explain to Yu that "Kaka" (mother) and "Nono" (Nozomi) are not coming back.
Murakami himself has yet to fully accept the fact that Taeko and Nozomi are gone.
He says he still sees Nozomi saying "bye-bye," one of the first words she had just learned to utter, and Taeko smiling as he leaves for work each morning.
So from 8:30 a.m. each day, Murakami boards a small fire engine with his colleagues and removes debris. At night, he patrols the dark city, which still does not have electricity, and sleeps in a barn.
When he comes across a photograph, he holds on to it until the evening when he tries to find the rightful owner.
"I was born and raised here, so I can tell who it belongs to," Murakami said.
(This article was compiled from reports by Tomomi Abe, Takaaki Ikeda and Kazumasa Sugimura.)
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