Sea begins to give back bodies it so violently took away
Published 22/03/2011 | 05:00
The sea that took the people of Ofunato is returning them.
Yesterday a Japan Coast Guard cutter began searching the narrow inlet that leads into this town, around the piers where logs were once loaded on to waiting ships.
When the tsunami came, those same massive tree trunks became battering rams that barrelled through the industrial zones behind the docks and into the residential districts.
Many remain embedded in cars, homes and shops, although others were washed back out to sea when the powerful waters reversed their course.
Along with the logs, the water took with it cars, the remains of people's houses and, in many cases, the people themselves.
Ten days after The Great Tohoku-Kanto Earthquake shattered the lives of people in north-east Japan, the hope of finding survivors is all but gone and the challenge now is to locate the dead.
"The tsunami came 1.8 miles inland from the mouth of the river and, because it had been funnelled into a narrow area at the mouth of the bay, it had a lot of force," said Yoshihisa Sasaki, an official at Ofunato town hall.
"And when it went out, it also had a lot of force, so we believe many people will have been washed a long way out to sea.
"That is what we believe and that is where we are looking for them."
The number of dead and missing presumed dead has surpassed 22,000.
"Bodies washed away by the tsunami will be recovered by the thousand per day from now on," said Naoto Takeuchi, the head of police in Miyagi.
Residents have patched up as many small boats as they could salvage and are helping the coast guard to search for those who are still missing.
Along the shore, more search teams are using long poles to poke into the mounds of debris. A 62-strong search and rescue team from Britain was here four days after the tsunami and they have left marks on the exteriors of buildings and cars to indicate they contain no corpses.
To date, the death toll for the town stands at 222 with a further 191 missing, of a total population of 60,000.
When the dead are washed back up on to the town's beaches, they are taken to Ofunato City First Junior High School.
Beyond the heavy steel doors to the school gymnasium, lines of wooden coffins are laid out in precise rows on blue tarpaulins.
A makeshift altar has been set up on a folding table with a candle, some offering of fruit and flowers.
The scent of incense is strong in the air and a priest is chanting and striking a tinny bell, all part of the Buddhist funeral rites.
A family, immaculately dressed in black, gathers around a coffin, which has the traditional doors over the face to allow relatives to say one final goodbye. A small boy rubs his eyes while an older boy holds a black-framed photo of an elderly lady.
When the service is finished, the priest moves on to another small knot of people standing over another coffin and begins the chants again. (© Daily Telegraph, London)