Workers dig corpses from a stinking, sandy sludge
NIGHT is falling on the tsunami-swept coast of Sendai when the stillness of the dusk is pierced by the sound of a whistle -- three quick, short blasts that ought to denote some kind of hope or life-saving urgency, but now announce only the discovery of yet another body.
The search teams are visibly weary after a long day combing the deluged aprons of Sendai's airport, but the summons of their colleague animates them one more time.
A tarpaulin is fetched; a canvas stretcher unfurled and, lastly, a polythene body-bag produced to heft the bloated remains away with what little dignity time and circumstance allows.
It is now four nights since a 9.0-magnitude earthquake triggered the tsunami that swept through this town in north-east Japan, destroying its airport in a moment that was captured in a dramatic piece of video that was broadcast around the world.
All yesterday the teams of masked workers in rubber boots and plastic over-trousers poked and prodded at the wreckage with wooden staves; divining for dead bodies buried in the tight-packed debris that has been glued together with stinking, sandy sludge.
It is desperate work sifting through the waste. This latest find is in the car park of the airport's school of aviation, where mounds of bristling flotsam have collected, funnelled in by the flood that carried planes and basketballs, cars and styrofoam coffee cups with equal ease.
The searching is made more difficult because the detritus gathered by the wave as it swept inland has become deeply compacted, piling up in two-storey heaps against anything strong enough to resist it: the gable-end of buildings, perimeter fences or rail and road embankments.
Such was the force of the wave that, in one place on Sendai's coastal motorway, a small Toyota car has been driven into the earth like a nail, sticking nose-first into the embankment with only its boot and passenger doors still visible.
"The force was unimaginable, how can you put it into words?" said 70-year-old Kan Kichi who had come to survey the wreckage. "We had a big earthquake about 40 years ago, but nothing like this. I used to come here to fish: it was such a mild, agreeable place."
Japan now officially estimates that at least 10,000 people were killed by the tsunami, but if yesterday's work at the airport is even partly representative, then that number could turn out to be a very conservative estimate.
Sho Oji, the sergeant managing the platoon of searchers at the airport's school of aviation, said that 1,000 bodies had been recovered from Sendai airport district.
"The bodies have just been too numerous," he said, "I am not supposed to say, but it is a thousand from around here alone."
Reports based on local officials' estimates now suggest that 10,000 people have died in the Miyagi prefecture -- of which Sendai is the main town.
Some 2,000 bodies have already been found on the shores of Ishinomaki and in Minamisanriku, a town with a population of 17,000; local authorities report another 10,000 missing. Already local radio is reporting that the government is struggling to deal with the number of corpses.
Another town, Rikuzentakata, with a population of 23,000 people, was "almost completely wiped out", the local fire department said, with more than 80pc of the city flooded; while in Otsuchi, out of a population of 15,000 people, 12,000 people are missing.
Driving along the coast, these numbers are not hard to believe. The sheer scale of the task that confronts the authorities along nearly 300 miles of coastline is as vast and difficult to conceive as the wave itself.
All day long, blaring ambulances shuttled up and down the coastal highway picking up the remains of the dead as they were disentangled from the rubbish. The sirens that used to speak of urgency, now signal only despair. (© Daily Telegraph, London)