ISHINOMAKI: Two years on, firefighters still searching for bodies

March 11, 2013

By SHUNICHI KAWABATA/ Staff Writer

ISHINOMAKI, Miyagi Prefecture--On the morning of March 10, about 300 local firefighters were pushing rakes as they searched for human remains near the mouth of the Kitakamigawa river.

They have been hunting for bodies almost every day since a tsunami swept into the city's Okawa district on March 11, 2011, and left it a jagged mass of timber and metal.

Farther up the river stood the Okawa elementary school, where it is thought that 74 children and 10 teachers died or went missing--70 percent of the school list.

One of the dead was fifth-grader Chisato Shito. The girl's father is a firefighter, and was among those scouring the estuary on March 10.

"A member of my family is gone," said Takahiro Shito, 48. "My family's sense of her presence feels ever larger and larger."

The overall death toll in Ishinomaki came to more than 3,000, nearly 20 percent of the total nationwide. In the Okawa neighborhood, where formerly about 2,500 people lived, the confirmed toll is 380, with 38 missing. Among the missing were four children with the school.

Despite the odds and the passage of time, Shito believes he could yet find bodies of the missing children. Past searches have been successful, and the firefighters report turning up many bodies buried in the wreckage and silt.

The last time a body was discovered in the district was in June 2012. But parental commitment remains strong: Shito said he knows of one man who continues to hunt for his missing child on his own.

Another bereaved parent whose child attended the school said he will not achieve emotional closure when the coordinated search effort winds up.

"As time goes by, I find (the loss) harder to accept," he said.

Since the disaster, recovery work has cleared heaps of debris from the neighborhood, but many victims feel that, for them, time has stood still.

By SHUNICHI KAWABATA/ Staff Writer
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Two years on, some areas look like the disaster hit only yesterday. Firefighters use rakes to search for human remains and personal belongings in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 10, 2013. (Masaru Komiyaji)

Two years on, some areas look like the disaster hit only yesterday. Firefighters use rakes to search for human remains and personal belongings in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 10, 2013. (Masaru Komiyaji)

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  • Two years on, some areas look like the disaster hit only yesterday. Firefighters use rakes to search for human remains and personal belongings in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 10, 2013. (Masaru Komiyaji)
  • Mourners gathered at the Okawa elementary school in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 10 to recall the victims of the quake and tsunami two years previously. Seventy percent of the school's students perished in the disaster. The building is one of many in the region that remain largely untouched since the disaster, a reflection of the massive size of the cleanup required. (Masaru Komiyaji)

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