Survivor remembers the colleagues who were swept away


Daniel Howden
Saturday 26 March 2011 01:00

Katsumi Suzuki was halfway through a shift at Fukushima's reactor No. 4 on 11 March when the power plant began to shake violently. People had to hang on for what seemed like minutes as the walls and walkways vibrated. Then it went dark. When the seismic shocks stopped, the engineer whose job was to monitor radiation levels at the plant led his colleagues out of the reactor building to the office block on higher ground.

Sitting cross-legged in a grey tracksuit yesterday on a mattress at the Minamisoma evacuees' centre 15 miles away, the engineer relayed the disaster in restless bursts. "I got a call from Tepco [the plant's operators] telling me that a tsunami was coming and it would be safer up there."

The plant's 500 hundred or so workers walked calmly to the shelter. "We didn't run, we had done this drill many times." As they gathered at the offices a little way inland, many employees were getting concerned by the uncommon force of the earthquake. "We told the boss we were worried about our families and wanted to leave and asked him if we could go."

The tsunami struck 20 minutes after the earthquake. For many of Mr Suzuki's colleagues, the decision to leave at that moment will have been fateful. The engineer headed eastwards and uphill to his house. Those who headed north or south across the lowlands areas drove straight into the path of the furious blanket of water and debris dispatched by the earthquake. "I don't know yet how many colleagues I lost but many of them must be dead."

The water stopped 300m short of Mr Suzuki's house, but he had to leave along with his neighbours when the nuclear exclusion zone was announced days later. He believes that the main damage at the plant was caused by the tsunami, not the quake. It was the water that overwhelmed the diesel generators and shut off the back-up power that would have cooled the reactors.

He proudly pulls a small banner out of a box by his bedside. It shows a cartoon character of a Tepco employee with the slogan "control radiation". It exhorts employees to make sure they are not exposed to more than 0.01 millisieverts daily. His face darkens when asked about the risks being taken by people trying to prevent an even bigger disaster at the plant. He pinches together his fingers to show the normal radiation level and then spreads his arms wide to indicate what the emergency teams are facing.

The 50-year-old has not been asked to join the group being called the "Samurai 50" fighting to cool the overheated reactors. He said he would go if called. Mr Suzuki says he doesn't know who the "specialists" brought in after the accident are. As far as he knows no-one from the original workforce has gone back.

Hitoshi Matsumoto, another former plant employee camped out at the same school gymnasium says outsiders have been brought in from Tokyo. "Everyone thinks they are heroes," says the 45-year-old. "But I don't know their names or their faces."

Mr Suzuki has been told that personnel from Kanto Electric Co. have been brought in from further south. He thinks they are being paid a "lot of money" and being housed on a ship off the coast, near Onahama Beach. But he doesn't begrudge them the danger money: "They are thinking about their country, not themselves."

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