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Dr Russell - Japan Earthquake - 16th March 2011

Up just before 0500hrs.  The main aim is to get as much work done during the daylight hours as possible.  In New Zealand we worked 24/7 with different shifts, here the pattern is different with everyone out to cover wide search areas during the day when visibility is good.  Of course, if we did find a trapped survivor, we would immediately go to an all-hours operations until we had effected a rescue.

Food is 'boil in the bag' kind of food.  Each packet comes with its own chemical heater in an outer bag.  Add a sachet of water and (unless you get a 'dud') it boils within a minute or so, and warms your food in about 5 minutes.  Quite tasty but the sort of diet where you could eventually start craving snacky and fresh food.  Already a bit of 'trading' with our American colleagues for their rations, to get some variety.

Onto buses and back into Ofunato.  The buses are little school buses, not designed for the standard leg-room of the Western firefighter.  Lots of squeezing in to be done, with kit, cameras (from embedded media), search kit and bodies filling the aisles.

Our search this morning was along the harbour frontage of Ofunato.  Mainly light industrial with some housing too.  Once again, struck by the amount of dead fish everywhere and the smelly semi-liquid silt layer deposited on everything.  Lots of boats destroyed and coming to rest in bizarre places, on top of buildings or in residential areas nowhere near the sea.

With such an extensive area of damage, the search is quite hasty in order to cover the ground.  Each crew is given sectors to search and moves as an extended line, stopping to search in more detail each car, boat, building or rubble pile it finds.  Someone always 'spots' for safety, remaining outside as USAR technicians commit to entering each rubble space where void spaces are found.  It is quite hazardous work as the crew are constantly walking and climbing over broken timber, nails, shards of glass and waste.

We covered the harbour area and what looked like the remains of a small group of fishing houses.  The work was quite swift and by mid-morning the search was complete, with everyone stopping for food near the harbour wall.  The weather (despite light snow on the ground at the BOO) was mild and dry, and after a break, the teams walked back along the damaged railway line to our start point - a fish market building in town.  The town is on a reasonable slope and if the tsunami sirens are sounded, our plan is to run on foot as fast as possible up hill.  Keep it simple.

The railway line had been washed completely off its embankment, the metal rails being bent as if they were made of flimsy bits of wire.  The forces involved must have been absolutely incredible.

After re-grouping at the fish market, we were given a new task in a town / area about 30km North (I think) called Kamaishi.  Back onto the buses and then what seemed like an age to get there, approximately 1 ½ hours.  By the time we got to Kamaishi, the weather had turned and it was snowing heavily.  Having really not expected this weather and making the 'school-boy error' of not bringing waterproof work gear, I resorted to putting on my own goretex jacket under my coveralls, to keep my base layer dry(ish).

Kamaishi seems to be built on an estuary and, if anything, seems even more badly damaged than Ofunato.  There are about 1000 people missing here and one can understand why with whole areas demolished, cars at precarious angles in amongst the debris.

Searching through the town, teams would spray paint on the remains of houses indicating what had been found as they went.  With this foreign symbology luridly decorating building frontages, I was reminded of the 'ethnic cleansing' of the Balkans conflict.  Human tragedy of a different kind.  At least nature does not choose between race or political view: the devastation is massive, and indiscriminate.

Another major aftershock during our search shook the buildings audibly.

The work this afternoon yielded a number of dead bodies in vehicles and buildings but again no signs of life.  The snow began to fall heavily in large wet flakes and the rubble piles became treacherous.  Climbing over sheets of wood or metal, now covered in an inch of snow, was slippery and most team members fell at some point.  We were lucky to get away without injury today.

Once our sector had been searched we shuffled down the road (bulldozed clear) through falling snow and back onto the buses.  The journey back to the BOO was long, cramped and damp, with bodies steaming and windows running in condensation.  Most of us slept intermittently and when we got to the BOO we were stiff and cold.  After the 'decon' boot wash in the snow, work clothes were hung to dry in the decon tent and it was back into the sports hall to get dry. 

Although there was no hot water, a cold wash and shave was a welcome freshen up and after food and downloading photos onto the laptop it was time to crawl into the welcoming warmth of the 'time accelerator'.