Tales of horror from Japan

For Elderly, Echoes of War’s Horrors
Published: March 14, 201

Hiroaki Ohno/Yomiuri Shimbun, via Associated Press

An elderly man was found buried alive in Miyagi Prefecture on Monday. Many of the victims of the tsunami were elderly.

TimesCast | Japan’s Elderly Victims

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“I lived through the Sendai air raids,” said Mr. Wako, 75, referring to the Allied bombings of the northeast’s largest city. “But this is much worse.”
For the elderly who live in the villages lining Japan’s northeastern coast, it is a return to a past of privation that their children have never known. As in so much of the Japanese countryside, young people have largely fled, looking for work in the city. The elderly who remained are facing devastation and possible radiation contamination, a challenge equal only to the task this generation faced when its defeated, despairing nation had to rebuild from the rubble of the war.

In this hamlet of Yuriage, the search for survivors was turning into a search for bodies. And most of those bodies were old — too old to have outrun the tsunami.
Yuta Saga, 21, was picking up broken cups after the earthquake when he heard sirens and screams of “Tsunami!” He grabbed his mother by the arm and ran to the junior high school, the tallest building around. Traffic snarled the streets as panicked drivers crashed into one another. He could measure the wave’s advance by the clouds of dust created by collapsing buildings.
When they reached the school, Mr. Saga and his mother found the stairs to the roof clogged with older people who appeared unable to muster the strength to climb them. Some were just sitting or lying on the steps. As the bottom floor filled with fleeing residents, the wave hit.
At first, the doors held. Then water began to pour through the seams and flow into the room. In a panic to reach the roof, younger residents began pushing and yelling, “Hurry!” and “Out of the way!” They climbed over those who were not moving, or elbowed them aside.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Mr. Saga said. “They were even shoving old people out of the way. The old people couldn’t save themselves.”
He added, “People didn’t care about others.”
Then the doors burst open, and the water rushed in. It was quickly waist level. Mr. Saga saw one older woman, without the strength or will to stand, sitting in water that rose to her nose. He said he rushed behind her, grabbed her under the arms and hoisted her up the stairs. Another person on the stairs grabbed her and lifted her up to another person. The men formed a human chain, lifting the older residents and some children to the top.
“I saw the ugly side of people, and then I saw the good side,” he said. “Some people only thought of themselves. Others stopped to help.”
Mr. Saga said one woman handed him her infant. “Please, at least save the baby!” she pleaded as water rose above his chest. Mr. Saga said he grabbed the baby and ran up the stairs. Many of those still at the foot of the stairs were washed away.
He joined about 200 people on the second floor of the building. The baby’s mother rushed upstairs, and he put the baby into her arms. From the windows, they watched uprooted homes and cars flowing by on the wave. People did not speak, he said. They just cried and moaned, a collective “Ahhhh!” as they watched the destruction unfold. He saw one of his classmates, whose parents had gone back home to get something as the wave came and did not make it to the school. His friend sat on the floor, in tears.
Mr. Saga’s family was safe, including his 15-year-old brother, Ryota, who fled to the school by bicycle.
On Monday, the two brothers returned to Yuriage for the first time. The house was entirely gone; just the foundation was left. When they got there, a tsunami alert sounded. They ran for higher ground, then the younger boy broke down, sobbing.
“He cannot forget the memory of what happened,” Mr. Saga said.
“Many of my friends are missing,” Ryota said.
Hisako Tanno, 50, was working at a warehouse when the earthquake struck. She rushed home to get her 77-year-old father. As she parked in front of her home, she heard screams. She looked down the street to see a “mountain of garbage” moving down the street at her. It was the wave.
“I only had time to grab my bag and run,” Ms. Tanno said.
Her neighbors called to her from their home, and she ran up to their second floor. Then she remembered she had left her father.
She could see her house from the window. When the wave hit, it smashed the sliding doors. Then, to her horror, she saw her father swept outside. The water was by now the height of a one-story building. She saw him grab the ironwork on her home’s second-story balcony and hold on.
“He was trying to pull himself up, but he has a bad leg,” she said.
As the water surged, her father was able to somehow hoist himself over the metal railing and onto the balcony. There he held onto for dear life.
“I didn’t know he had it in him,” she said. “He wanted so badly to live that he found that last burst of strength.”
After the earthquake, Jun Kikuchi, 33, who owns a local taxi company, drove to the homes of a half-dozen residents aged 70 or older to ask if he could take them to higher ground. They refused, saying that there was no tsunami alert, so they would stay home.
He survived the wave by going to the second floor of his company office, which withstood the tsunami. The next morning, when he finally ventured out again, the homes of all six of the older residents were washed away.
“The elderly can’t take care of themselves in a disaster like this,” he said. “They didn’t stand a chance.”
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.