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Survivors in tears as UK rescue teams arrive in town

As the British emergency convoy rolled into Ofunato yesterday, survivors stood in the street and cried. For those whose lives have been torn apart, the sight of hundreds of rescue workers proved too much.

"There are apparently hundreds of people missing," said Roy Wilsher, who is heading the search and rescue mission. "You can actually see the emotion on the faces of the people as we go by. They are so thankful to see us and we're thankful to be here to help them."

Images of the tsunami emerging from Ofunato illustrated vividly the horror – the now all-too-familiar sight of a giant wave of water and debris rolling through the city at almost roof height, tossing cars and boats like toys and crushing buildings in its path. So far authorities have confirmed at least 574 people have died in Ofunato and Rikuzentakata cities, in Iwate prefecture.

The UK International Search and Rescue Team (Isar) arrived at an air force base in northern Japan on Sunday and linked up with two US units from California and Virginia, before the convoy set off on a 200km journey to the north-east coastal area with a population of 42,000.

Mr Wilsher, an expert in coordinating emergency responses, said the team would begin work at dawn, late last night British time, to search for survivors, coordinating with Japanese personnel.

"There is a lot of devastation all around and this a challenging time for everyone involved. But we will focus on what we are here to do as this is what we train for. I feel privileged to be able to lead a team of highly-skilled and professional people, to provide help at a time when the people of Japan need us most."

The team of 63, including urban search and rescue specialists, firefighters, medical support and dog units, was dispatched on Saturday after a direct appeal for help from the Japanese government.

Several of those on board had only just returned from Christchurch, New Zealand, where they had worked alongside Japanese experts after the earthquake. The experts are hoping that the numerous large buildings still standing in the area will yield survivors.