Japan tsunami: Searching for the lost in Natori
- 16 March 2011
- From the section Asia-Pacific
Every hour the toll keeps climbing. White coffin after white coffin is brought into a bowling alley in the town of Natori, lost life after lost life.
Large green army trucks deliver more bodies. Groups of soldiers wearing face masks haul the coffins off the back of the trucks then carry them up the steps.
Coming out of the building are families, some shuffling slowly, weighed down with grief - a mother with tears on her cheeks, a father with his head bowed, his eyes blank.
Small groups of people gather in front of a board that has sheets of paper pinned to it. These are the printed names of the dead.
It is the terrible reckoning of this disaster, tallied in lists that the living scan with dread.
Tatsuya Suzuki came to the bowling alley today. He was searching among the names for his wife, Izumi.
"People who went missing and were found dead, their bodies are here," he told me. "I've come to see if she is one of them or not."
Mr Suzuki was at work when the earthquake happened.
What he knows is that Izumi was at home and, as the tsunami approached, leapt in her car to escape with their two children and Tatsuya's mother.
The family lived in the fishing port of Yuriage which was devastated by the waves. Where there was a town of several thousand now almost nothing remains.
The Suzuki's home, like almost every other one down by the harbour, has vanished.
What you can see is where Izumi fled to. She made it just a few hundred metres down the road.
As the waves crashed through the town, she stopped in front of a cousin's house. That house is still there, with debris piled all around.
With her mother-in-law she jumped out of her car, and seeing the tsunami coming up the road, they ran across the street carrying the two children.
They were heading for another cousin's house because it was made of steel. Izumi reached the steps.
She handed the two children to her mother-in-law who pulled them inside just as the tsunami reached them. Izumi was swept away by the waves.
True toll unknown
The children ran to the second floor of the building and survived. The house they found refuge in is now one of the few things left standing in the area.
Everything else has been destroyed.
Most of the houses in the town were made of wood, that's why they were washed away. And there are huge piles of smashed up planks everywhere, along with uprooted trees, crushed cars, and the possessions swept out of hundreds of homes.
Tatsuya Suzuki, though, is convinced his wife survived, somehow.
Her name was not on the lists of the dead at the temporary mortuary, so he has moved on.
Now, he is searching the lists of the living, those who made it to the shelters. They are pinned to the wall in the town hall in Natori, pages and pages of names, over 8,000 of them.
But there's no Izumi Suzuki listed here either.
"I have been coming here every day since the earthquake, but until now I have no information about my wife," Tatsuya tells me.
And five days on, there is scant idea either of the true toll of this disaster.
Nobody knows how many were swept away like Izumi. The number is in the thousands, perhaps 15,000.
More than 4,300 are confirmed to have died.
Teams of soldiers, firemen and international rescue teams are combing through the wreckage left by the tsunami in towns and villages up and down the east coast.
But on Wednesday, snow started falling making the job of searching even harder.
Izumi Suzuki's children are now safe. Two-year-old Hibiki and his six-year-old sister Hikaru are back with their father.
A car repair shop belonging to some friends is their temporary home. The children sit in the showroom playing with balloons. Their grandmother, who survived with them is busy caring for her grandchildren.
"The kids keep smiling every day," says Tatsuya, with his little son perched on his lap.
"They keep saying, 'Let's go and find mummy today' - then they say, 'if not today we'll find her tomorrow.'
"It's what gives me strength to keep on looking for her."