Dr Russell - Japan Earthquake - 17th March 2011
Another early start. Kit and boots still damp and now 2-3 inches of snow on the ground but the day looking bright. After team briefings we headed off to another area of Kamaishi. Some unrecognised genius had managed to swap our school buses for coaches which made the transit much better.
The area today is probably the worst affected that I have seen. Swathes of housing areas ripped off its foundations, concrete plinths and brickwork outlining the shapes of the buildings that had recently been attached.
Split into teams for a huge line search. Similar to before, but less snow on the ground so the going was a bit easier and safer. The sun was even out for a while. More bodies found here and there.
One typical house had been ripped from its foundations and flipped, intact, completely upside down. Appearing precarious, but reasonably stable, we made entry and climbing across soft damp plasterboard ceilings, clearing rooms one and a time and finding ways to climb up to the next level (stairs being upside down above us). In some places where doors were completely blocked we had to smash holes through walls and climb through.
Searching through Kamaishi in multiple 6-8 person crews resembled a military 'company advance', shovels and crowbars in place of weapons. I noted a range of tools being used to aid the clambering and prevent falls, some being recovered from the rubble, and left there at the end of the day. I saw golf clubs, ski poles and base ball bats over the last few days. Perhaps the team should be issued with walking poles for operations like this. The shovel was the particular favourite of USAR Technician Steve Partington from the Kent crew. He described how it was multifunctional serving as walking stick, breaking tool, emergency roof prop, and - shovel.
We covered a lot of ground this morning, at one point making it onto the roof of an intact 4 storey building to get a panoramic view of the remains of the town, scrubbed brutally from the landscape.
Searching another collapsed building, I could see a void space almost below ground level. I spent a minute or two removing timber and debris to gain access to the space. I was able to crouch down to get underneath, USAR Technician Heather Heath and Steve Partington already inside the building. As I entered the tiny space, I turned to my right to suddenly find myself face to face with an elderly woman appearing to gaze straight at me. Trapped by timber at the waste, her body was dirty but remarkably intact; she had presumably drowned. She looked like she had a friendly face and there was no immediate horror though it was sad to see the little lady trapped there. The Kent team carefully removed the debris trapping her and we gently lifted her out laying her out on a bit of matting we'd found. She was a tiny lady compared to the firefighters carrying her and the moment was one of care and dignity. We marked the exact location with GPS, carried her body to a Japanese police officer, and continued with the search glad that we had helped return her body to her family.
The search continued in the way for another hour or so. At one point, one of the dogs 'indicated' a live hit. As the other dog was brought in, we knew it was almost impossible that there would be someone alive now, but there was a tiny flicker of hope. Unfortunately not to be, as the second dog scanned the area and didn't indicate anything. The dogs have been incredibly useful and must be one of the most powerful tools we have for the search phase.
The snow was now falling again and we gathered under a steel balcony of a building to warm some food up. It was early afternoon and, with task complete, we headed back to the BOO.
On arrival back at base we were told that we were moving out, our task now finished and arrangements in place for our return. We had two hours to quickly pack and load kit and get onto the coaches. Although there were a few delays, we were underway by early evening and had a fairly uneventful six hour return to the Misawa US airbase. Here we were able to have a very welcome shower and shave and get some sleep, our mission over.