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Japan firefighters spearhead hunt for dead and missing

His chief and brother-in-law both missing and his town flattened by a tsunami, Takao Sato and his volunteer fire brigade have been toiling every day since the disaster to find the dead and missing.

world Updated: Mar 20, 2011 19:38 IST

His chief and brother-in-law both missing and his town flattened by a tsunami, Takao Sato and his volunteer fire brigade have been toiling every day since the disaster to find the dead and missing.

Retrieving corpses in Rikuzentakata, a pine tree-lined Japanese beach town of 23,000, is a sad new experience for Sato, who inherited both his spot in the brigade and a tiny forestry business from his father decades ago.

Yet leaving the work to military units and fire departments from far-flung regions of Japan was not an option in the wake of the 10-metre-plus wave that struck on March 11.
"I have a duty to the community," Sato, 53, says. As deputy of his division, he must fill in for the missing chief.

Officially, the search for survivors ended at 2.46 p.m. on Friday, exactly a week after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake that preceded the tsunami. The dual disaster has killed more than 7,600 people and left 11,700 missing in northeast Japan.

With more than 1,500 locals presumed dead, Sato and other volunteers at Rikuzentakata are motivated to end the agony of family members desperate for news.

"This morning my next door neighbour came crying to me that she still can't find her husband. All I could tell her was, 'We'll do our best, so just hold on a little longer.'"

Bodies in mud

Sato's house up in the hills was safe, and he has enough rice and vegetables from his garden to eat a decent meal now that gas is back.

But some of his crew are homeless, until recently fed only small portions of bread and rice balls -- "smaller than a tuna's eyeballs" as Sato puts it -- as evacuees in a temporary shelter.

"I finally convinced the community centre to provide a little more to keep them going, and now they're fed two or three rice balls," he says.

"Otherwise, it's not enough to get them through the day."

The men's day is long and exhausting.

Poking through acres of rubble at the weekend, Sato's crew of about a dozen braved strong winds kicking up sand from the beach that has blanketed much of the scene of destruction.

Some have no showers to go back to, and the onset of fatigue is palpable as they find fewer bodies by the day.

In the two hours after lunch break, the team has turned up just two safe boxes -- one big and one small -- radioing back to have them collected by the police.

A little later, the team gets a glimpse of a body -- two hands and a face -- plastered in mud. But the corpse is caught in a tangle of debris, and it is unclear whether it has already been marked as found.

A pole nearby has a white flag instead of red for a found body. "Mark it with a red flag," Sato calls out.

"I'd never seen a dead body outside funerals before this. But now it's different," Sato says. "Even this scenery -- on the first day it seemed otherworldly, but I've gotten used to it. It's a repetition of this, day in and day out."

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