No hysterical outbursts, just an endless stream of quiet grief

Tens of thousands of relatives are engaged in an agonising quest to find out what happened to loved ones
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The Independent Online

Amid the mud and slurry, the death and devastation, people came looking for answers. They wanted to know if their missing friends and relatives had been found, or what may have happened to them and where they might be.

If it was the case – as so many feared – that they had been killed, then they wanted to know where the body was being kept and they wanted to double-check the authorities had identified them correctly. In short, they were looking for hard information, something that has been in short supply these past vexed days.

"That was the mother of one of my students. She told me he was alive. That is why I am crying," said Miki Teshima, a teacher at the Omagari Elementary School in Higashi Matsushima, who had been hugging a woman in an upstairs corridor. "I am happy about him. But 10 more of my students are still missing."

Given the extraordinary stories that have been told and the amazing images that have been beamed around the world, there was perhaps nothing especially remarkable about the way in which the tsunami struck the port town of Higashi Matsushima, 90 minutes of east of the city of Sendai, epicentre of the earthquake. To the north, the toll of the dead and missing in some towns alone has reached more than 1,000. So if the grief appeared quietly subdued in Higashi Matsushima – a town where at least 320 people have lost their lives and many more remain unaccounted for – it is only because of the scale of this tragedy.

Ms Teshima had been in the school when the tsunami struck last Friday, hurriedly ushering her young pupils to the protection of the upstairs floors to try to keep them safe. She could see the tsunami roaring across the horizon towards them but could not hear its noise because the children were crying so loudly. They hugged and held each other close, promising that everything would be all right. "I could only watch it coming – coming very fast," she said.

Yesterday, the 29-year-old was again doing her best to comfort and console and was busy at the school, which has rapidly turned into both an emergency shelter for those whose homes have been destroyed and an exchange for those seeking information.

More than 400 people were bedding down in the classrooms every evening and during the day people dropped in to read the lists of names of those who were still there and those who were elsewhere. Children's blue plastic skipping ropes hung from pegs.

Among those staying at the school were two women with badly bruised legs whose car had been caught in the tsunami and carried away. One of them had just stepped out of the vehicle and demonstrated how she grabbed on to the door with both hands as it took off with her friend. Quite how either woman survived with such minor injuries was a point of wonder.

Down a flight of stairs, the school noticeboard had become another information point. Here people had posted messages and notes, asking for information about people they were looking for or else confirming that one or another person was all right.

"I am looking for my aunt," said one young woman, Yoko Kudo, who pinned a hand-written note – elegant calligraphy with a black marker pen – to the board.

All around the school were the signs of damage and destruction. Cars were heaped on one another, buildings were damaged and absolutely everything was covered in a deep layer of stinking mud. People worked thanklessly with shovels to clear the debris but it looked like hard labour. There was no power and very little clean water. A road that passed near the school was submerged under water. A man in a baseball cap, Takeo Harumi, was looking out across the water. He had driven away to high ground in the aftermath of the quake but he said he knew a number of people who had not been so lucky. A woman with a young baby strapped to her back said she was searching for information about a friend of her father. She believed her mother may have died when the wave struck a nearby town.

Those seeking confirmation of the worst were being directed to the town's municipal gymnasium where bodies were taken for identification and laid out on the floor. "I am looking for my aunt. This is the second day I have been here. Yesterday I was shown two bodies but it was not her," said Masaki Hotta, who had left his car in the car-park and gone in search of information.

Another man was getting increasingly agitated. He and the others had been told that the bodies had been shifted to a nearby school because the gym was no longer considered structurally safe. The man was looking for his father, who he said had been killed by the tsunami and his body removed by the authorities. He did not know where he was and he berated the official in charge.

That official, who declined to give his name, played a gently dignified role, welcoming the people as they arrived in these most awful of circumstances and bowing in apology when they learned they would have to make yet another journey to find out what had happened to their loved ones.

"There are 320 bodies so far. They are of all ages – from one to 95," said the man. "Most were found in their cars or under their cars. I don't know the circumstances and if they were trying to drive away. It's possible that there may be more bodies buried in the mud. Poor tools have arrived but we are very short of tools and help. There are worries about disease."

The official was from the town and, as was the case for everyone, the tragedy that had played out here was utterly personal. Towards the end of the conversation he revealed that the body of his aunt had been brought into the gym several days before and that he was still waiting for information about his four grandchildren and his parents, who were all missing.

Asked whether he believed they were still alive, the man's outward resolve briefly buckled. "I believe so," he sobbed. "I hope. I truly hope."