So as to allow people around the world to know of and share in the lessons of the Great East Japan Disaster, Kahoku Shimpo is making public the English translation of its “Wagakoto” series in several installments. The translations were prepared by student volunteers from Boston University and the University of Michigan in cooperation with the staff of the Edwin O. Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard.

Part 1: What Happened that Day (1) Ishinomaki City Ogatsu Hospital / Waves Unexpectedly Breach the Roof

Ishinomaki City Hospital, ravaged by the tsunami (Illustration: Michino Kuriki)
The hospital stood on the banks of Ogatsu Bay, and the ocean could be seen from the second and third floors = Ogatsu Isehata, Ogatsu-cho, Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture
Dr. Fumihiko Imamura, Deputy Director, International Research Institute of Disaster Science, Tohoku University (Tsunami Engineering)

The northeastern coast of Japan, damaged by the tsunami from the Great East Japan Earthquake, extends 400km. There are affected areas along this coast that have yet to be reported in detail by the media. Why were there casualties? What could have been done to save these lives? Preparations begin from considering these issues as “Wagakoto,” namely, your own, as well as your family’s, and becoming aware of the means to protect yourself. We went in to four affected areas in Iwate, Miyagi, and Fukushima Prefectures in order to collect testimonials, and investigate lessons from the disaster.
(“Preserve Lives and Communities” Investigation team) = Part 1 written in 4 parts

◎The helpless staff

“The tsunami wouldn’t reach here.” Similar assumptions became a hindrance in the disaster, and contributed to the loss of many lives across the region. An example is the Ishinomaki City Ogatsu Hospital of Miyagi Prefecture, which overlooked the ocean. The tsunami made its way over the seawall, approaching the hospital.

Administrative staff Yoshikatsu Endo (47) was walking back to the hospital after moving a nurse’s car to the Ishinomaki City General Branch Office in Ogatsu, located on a slightly elevated area. He saw water overflowing from the seawall, which stood higher than the height of an adult, and ran into the main building.

He checked that nobody was on the first and second floors, ran up the stairs, and headed to the third floor at the top of the building. He looked to the sea from a hospital room.

“This is not good.”

The water was climbing steadily. He did not have a sense of danger when the first floor flooded, only wondering, “What should we do about the broken appliances?” Next was the second floor. He heard the sound of window glass breaking. “It’s alright. The third floor should be safe…”

The hospital had a disaster response manual, based on the disaster prevention plans created by Ishinomaki City. Tsunami waves were assumed to reach a maximum height of six meters. The building, made of reinforced concrete, was built a couple meters above sea level. Hospital beds were placed on the third floor, 6.8 meters from the ground.

At the time of the earthquake, outpatient care had ended, and the hospital beds were full with 40 inpatients. Most were elderly and could not walk on their own.

“Get this person up!” The director of the nursing department instructed, and four male staff, including Endo and the chief pharmacist, lifted the corners of the bed sheets to carry the elderly patient.
“Where are you taking me?” The elderly patient wondered from the bed sheets. A heavy body for such a thin frame. They could only carry one person with four.

The tsunami broke through the windows of the third floor, where many patients remained.

Seven staff made it up to the roof, including Endo. The force of the tsunami did not wane as it reached the roof. The staff tried to evade the waves while carrying the elderly. Finally, the time came when it was all they could do to protect themselves. The chief pharmacist apologized as they set down the elderly patient: “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” The patient floated in the water.

Endo was also surrounded by water, and cornered against the wall of the penthouse. The moment he was carried by the waves, he yelled, “Help!” He thought of his family.

In the meantime, at least seven staff, including a female assistant nurse, stood on the roof of the new annex connected to the main building.
As the rain drizzled down, water rushed in from all directions. All seven lined up on the concrete fence, but the water soon came up to their knees. The assistant nurse went into the ocean, wearing only her nurse uniform.

She kicked and swam towards the roof of a house that came floating by. The assistant director of the hospital was nearby, and pushed her up. They both clung on to the roof, along with another nurse.

Some staff remained on the roof. The assistant director encouraged them, calling out, “Do your best,” “Hold onto something!”

After enduring several waves, all three fell into the sea. The assistant nurse grabbed on to the roof again, but the assistant director and nurse were washed away, holding on to the ruins of another house.

“Is there anyone out there?” She felt lonely and helpless. She heard the nurse calling from far away, “Do your best!”

In the end, the tsunami reached several meters above the roof. All 40 of the hospitalized patients, as well as 24 of the 30 hospital staff, lost their lives or went missing.

Endo climbed on to debris and small boats after being caught in the tsunami, and drifted close to 18 hours. He was rescued the next morning.
The assistant nurse swam to the rocks before sundown. The assistant director and nurse, however, never returned.

◎On the line between self-preservation and cooperation: The instant transformation of the bay and unfortunate location

The Ishinomaki City Ogatsu Hospital stood at the back of Ogatsu Bay. From the hospital rooms, you could see small boats coming and going, and the ocean breeze would come in through open windows.

The normally calm bay became narrower as it went deeper inland, which meant tsunami heights would tend to increase in the area. This geographical condition contributed to the disaster.

According to witnesses, the tsunami rushed to the hospital within half an hour of the earthquake, at around 3:12-13 p.m. The wall clock on the third floor remains frozen at 3:27 p.m.

During the 1960 Chile Earthquake Tsunami, the area around the hospital flooded approximately one meter high. At the time, there was no seawall that divided land and sea.

Shoichi Nagai (71), who lived right behind the hospital, testifies:
“When the hospital reconstruction plan was put on the table, my late father opposed, saying, ‘This place is dangerous, the tsunami can reach here. It should be built in the back mountains.’ But nobody listened to him.”

Nagai was at home when the 2011 earthquake hit. He felt the force of the vertical shock, then the lateral shaking. “A tsunami more terrible than the Chile Earthquake tsunami is coming,” he thought instinctively.

On the third floor of the hospital, his mother Toshiyo (then 91) was hospitalized. He worried about the safety of his mother, but made up his mind. “I can only escape to the back mountains.”

He had his younger brothers escape first. On the way to the mountains, he met the hospital staff, including the assistant director, at the parking lot behind the hospital. “The hospital is finished, go to higher ground!” he yelled. “I can’t leave the patients and escape. I’m going up to the third floor,” responded the assistant director, turning back to the building.

Nagai climbed the back mountain. He saw the waves splash up from hitting the opposite bank, and wash over the hospital. “Oh, mother.” He closed his eyes.

Toshiyo’s body was later found in a hospital room. The body of Nagai’s wife Misako (then 61), who ran to her mother-in-law after the earthquake, was found leaned against the door. The two had a closer bond than blood relations.

On March 9, two days before the disaster, another earthquake had hit the area. “If a tsunami comes by any chance, dear, just escape without caring for anyone else,” Nagai had reminded his wife as they discussed evacuation methods that evening.

On the day of the earthquake, Misako is thought to have headed to the hospital after relocating the car to higher ground.

“Even though I had reminded her so many times…”

When a tsunami comes, escape on your own. This difficult, severe conviction was what saved Nagai’s life. Others, like the hospital staff and Misako, lost their lives while trying to save someone else.

◎New institutions should be built on higher ground: Reflecting on fixed assumptions / Dr. Fumihiko Imamura, Director, International Research Institute of Disaster Science, Tohoku University (Tsunami Engineering)

After the earthquake, I went to Ogatsu-cho, Ishinomaki City to investigate. The only things that stood between Ogatsu Hospital and the ocean were a seawall and prefectural road. I felt that it was extremely close to the sea. However, the truth is that before the disaster, buildings were generally assumed to be safe as long as they were a few stories high and strong enough to withstand a tsunami.

Across the country, there are many hospitals and facilities for the elderly built along the coast. Future facilities should be built at safe places, including elevated areas outside of inundation zones. Institutions that may have difficulties during evacuation, with many bedridden people and insufficient building height, should review their location and disaster preparation methods.

Tsunami awareness at Ogatsu-cho had always been extremely high. The number of victims from this disaster is very low, relative to the scale of the tsunami. The numbers speak for themselves ? the victims make up 5.5% of the population, while 80% of the residences were completely destroyed.

The disaster prevention efforts at Ogatsu-cho and other regions did not go to waste. Then why were there victims? We had been preparing under a fixed assumption, myself not excluded.

Both training and evacuation plans cannot be realized without some kind of assumption. The important thing is to not be bound to a certain belief. It is necessary to consider three different cases, including events of a smaller and larger scale.

For instance, where would you escape if a tsunami reaches an evacuation area that was presumed safe? What if the debris from a collapsed house blocks an evacuation route? It is necessary to think one step ahead at all times, using radios and other devices to collect information while evacuating.

There is no end to disaster prevention efforts. There are issues that became apparent from the 2011 disaster, and issues that resurfaced during the earthquake of December 7, 2012. Each individual should build on these lessons and think about what they could do. Disaster prevention and recovery are the opposite sides of the same coin. The driving force behind overcoming the disaster should be individual efforts to prevent the damage from recurring.

January 3, 2013 (Thurs.)
Translated by Anna Wada