Grim hunt for 12,000 bodies still missing in quake zone
Painfully slow progress is being made in clearing tens of thousands of tonnes of debris from the quake-hit north of Japan as clean-up crews are so hampered by demands to preserve people's possessions that thousands of bodies remain undiscovered.
Nearly 25,000 soldiers were drafted in yesterday to conduct the biggest search yet of the rubble of towns and villages along the coast hit by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
The task is to find the 12,000 people still listed as missing. To date, the bodies of 14,300 people have been recovered.
The recovery teams and those tasked with clearing shattered buildings, rotting waste and ripped-up roads are in a race against time before the heat and humidity of Japan's summer months arrive in a few weeks' time.
Decomposed bodies are not being shown to people searching for relatives as it would be too distressing. Instead, family members are being asked to identify loved ones from the clothes they were found in or the contents of their pockets.
Officials estimate that it may take a year to gather all the debris, which will be transferred to sites where it will be processed and disposed of. That could take an additional two years. The large-scale removal of debris, which in places has been compacted into piles four storeys high, is impeded by residents returning to salvage.
Heavy machinery has been brought in to pick up crushed cars, collapsed roofs and blocks of masonry that caved in under the weight of water.
Operators of the machinery are sympathetic to onlookers whose homes they are removing.
Invariably, as soon as a former homeowner sees something of theirs, work stops so it can be retrieved.
"Everyone has been very nice," Sakuji Funayama (77) said in the remains of his home in the town of Kesennuma. "They all stop whenever we see anything."
Mr Funayama had just recovered a scuffed backpack that had belonged to his son, who had moved away years ago.
According to the government, 125,000 buildings were destroyed.
"It's been more than a month since the massive earthquake and tsunami, but we still have lots of people still missing," said Norikazu Muratani, a defence spokesman. "We want to recover them and return them to their families."
More than six weeks after the earthquake, the likelihood is that thousands of people will never be found. (© Daily Telegraph, London)