'It was terrifying, like a movie where everyone runs from something scary'
Masashi Imai wrapped his arms around the wheelchair that held his disabled wife and clung on with all his strength.
Their home lurched and swayed as the ground fell away. The power went out. Mr Imai switched on his wire radio and heard the warning. Then came the deluge.
Mr Imai picked up his wife's limp body, cradled it and carried her to the second floor. "Father! Father!" screamed a girl from a neighbouring house. Mr Imai's wife, who has mental problems after two strokes, began to laugh.
Many of Mr Imai's neighbours had nowhere to run, because their houses had only one storey. Eventually, the girl's voice went silent.
In the most powerful earthquake ever recorded in Japan, the line between life and death proved very thin -- just one storey high, in Mr Imai's case, or little more than a bus length away from a wall of water.
Even along the killing zone of the north-eastern coast, some buildings and entire neighbourhoods were spared while others were obliterated. The death toll is feared to be higher than 10,000.
On that fateful Friday, Ayumi Osuga was practising origami with her three children, aged two to six, in their single-story home in the coastal city of Sendai. At 2.46pm, the ground started to shake. Cups and plates fell from cupboards and shattered, but the damage seemed minor.
Then Ms Osuga's husband called. "Get out of there now!" he yelled.
Chilled by the warning, the 24-year-old factory worker quickly gathered her children into the car and fled to a hilltop home belonging to her husband's family 20km away. She managed to beat waves moving at the speed of a jumbo jet.
Safe on higher ground, Ms Osuga's family spent the night listening to the radio. The darkness was lit only by candles, and the cold was bitter; some snow still lay on the hills around.
On Sunday, she returned with her husband and relatives to a home that was no more. Tears in her eyes, Ms Osuga stuffed ruined bank documents and family photos into backpacks.
Ms Osuga was hoping the neighbourhood had been spared any deaths. But just then, a team of firefighters with wooden picks appeared. One of them yelled out: "A corpse."
Inside a house about 15 meters away, they found the body of a gray-haired woman lying under a blanket.
A few minutes later, the firefighters spotted another: It was Ms Osuga's neighbour. Wearing a black fleece and black pants, he lay crumpled in a partial foetal position, hugging some cardboard debris, at the bottom of a stairwell inside his home.
Ms Osuga knows she is lucky to be alive. "My family, my children. . . I have come to realise what is important in life," she said.
Like Ms Osuga, construction worker Yukou Ito was lucky enough to reach higher ground -- barely.
Mr Ito was at work about 40 minutes from his home near the harbour in Hachinohe when the earthquake struck. He returned in time to see a wall of rising water, which funnelled cars and boats down the street toward him.
"It was terrifying. . . It looked like a foreign movie where everyone's running from something scary," he said.
Mr Ito grabbed a credit card and jumped into his compact car. Through his rearview mirror, he could see the huge tsunami crashing down the street just behind him. A fishing boat was right behind him.
Now, several centimetres of water cover the floor at the entrance of his apartment, along with his ruined refrigerator, his microwave and a cabinet. A pile of muddy clothes soak in a large plastic bucket filled with water.
"I have to start over from square one," he says, lighting a cigarette and looking at the men in hard hats dragging debris and twisted metal out of buildings. Huge fishing boats were turned on their sides in the road like children's toys. "I've got absolutely nothing left."