Earlier this month, workers began to dismantle the Onagawa branch of 77 Bank, a local bank based in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. Along with the building, the hopes of getting answers for some bereaved family members also began to crumble.
When the large earthquake struck Japan’s northeastern Tohoku region, including Miyagi Prefecture, on March 11 last year, the 13 employees working at the bank’s branch in Onagawa went up onto the roof of the two-story building for safety. But a towering tsunami triggered by the magnitude-9.0 quake swept them all away. Only one was later rescued.
During the Golden Week holidays through early May, the families of the victims, including parents, siblings and spouses of bank employees who were killed in the disaster, gathered at the work site. One was the husband of a female employee who is still missing.
They had been urging the bank to examine and assess the actions taken by workers at the branch on that day with the help of the sole survivor and experts in disaster control before the building was demolished.
The branch was located some 100 meters from the port of Onagawa. There is a hill that is a three-minute walk from the branch. The victims would probably have survived if they had headed for the hill. The tsunami didn’t reach the second floor of a hospital standing on the hill.
Two other local financial institutions--Sendai Bank and Ishinomaki Shinkin Bank--also have branches in Onagawa close to the port. But the people working at those branches went up nearby hills, as decided by the branch heads, and escaped being swallowed by the raging wave. None stayed at their branches to be killed by the tsunami.
The question haunting the families of the victims at 77 Bank’s Onagawa branch is why they didn’t go up the hill.
The bank’s disaster response plan says the employees of its branches should be evacuated to a designated evacuation site or to the roof of the branch building when there is a danger of tsunami.
The decision on which course of action to choose is left to the branch managers. The management of 77 Bank concluded that the Onagawa branch manager’s decision to evacuate the employees to the roof of the building was not negligent and decided to dismantle the building without conducting the investigation demanded by the families of the victims.
When I interviewed officials of the bank, they asked me not to publish a report on the topic. They claimed some members of the bereaved families didn’t want stories about the tragedy to be made public.
But that was not what the victims' families I met told me. They actually urged me to report on what happened to their loved ones to make sure no such tragedy will occur again. They deplored that the bank’s attitude seemed to them an attempt to make memories of the tragedy fade away.
The Onagawa branch is the only branch of 77 Bank that lost employees in the tsunami. Doesn’t the bank see the relevance of this fact?
In March, bank management sent letters to the families of the tsunami victims inviting them to a spirit-consoling service for the dead. But the letters aroused bitter resentment among the families because they had a stereotypical beginning expressing hope that things were going well with the recipients and their families. The bank subsequently changed the beginning to another stock phrase, but it was also deemed inappropriate.
The harrowing tale about the deaths of the bank employees is reminiscent of the tragedy at Okawa elementary school in Ishinomaki in the same prefecture. The tsunami left a total of 84 children and staff members at the school dead or missing. The school suffered such massive casualties because pupils were kept in the schoolyard for 50 minutes after the earthquake occurred.
Ishinomaki Mayor Hiroshi Kameyama was criticized by the families of the victims after he described their deaths as inevitable, a “fate” that befalls many people in this type of major natural disaster.
Emergency decisions made at schools and workplaces during large-scale disasters often mean the difference between life and death. One question that must be asked about tragedies like those that befell the bank and elementary school is whether there were any problems within the organizations and systems that made the fateful decisions.
It was indeed an unprecedented disaster for this nation, but many lives were saved as well as lost. Both the bank and the public should pay serious attention to the facts concerning the loss of the precious lives at the Onagawa branch.
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Satomi Ono is a staff writer at The Asahi Shimbun Sendai General Bureau.
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